Those who know have concluded that Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” occupies the summit of American musical theater. I was curious to see what the reputable suburban Drury Lane Theatre would do with this passionate virtuoso masterpiece. The answer: much more than I expected. Rhett Guter’s first-class choreography, a stunningly atmospheric set by Scott Davis and more than adequate singing, all under the able direction of Rachel Rockwell, made my evening more enjoyable than I had dared to hope for.
The crackerjack Drury Lane dance corps tosses off impossible song-and-dance sequences as if these feats were nothing special physically or artistically. For the first time in my life, I realized that unless you have thirty dancers who have the explosive strength of an Olympic sprinter, the instant breath recovery of a four-minute miler, and the acrobatic fluidity of a company of Chinese acrobats, plus the grace and artistry of top-tier ballet soloists, you haven’t a prayer of staging “West Side Story.” You simply can’t do it unless every one of your dancers meets these minimum requirements.
And these thirty Drury Lane cast members were very decent actors—and able singers. They nailed hair-trigger vocal entries while dancing and acting. They had ears for the outré jazz harmonies and the perfect intonation Bernstein demands from every character.
This work is unbelievably difficult to perform. The dances are wildly exciting, and the night I attended, the audience responded viscerally to everything—the comedy, the deadly sarcasm, the sickening brutality of the fights, the pungent, flashing wit of the women, the headlong, coruscating beauty of the dances, and the overwhelming genius of Bernstein’s music. At least six of his songs provoked loud, enthusiastic applause.
Only two flaws dimmed the luster of the evening. They were not small ones: The absence of eleven of the twelve stringed instruments called for by the score and the decision to amplify electronically both orchestra and singers. True, the audience never knew what it was missing: Namely, the tremendous thrill of Bernstein’s orchestration, and thirty-one virtuoso band players pouring out glorious floods of heavenly melodies, unheard-of rhythms and astounding harmonies undistorted by technology.
A standing ovation at the final curtain confirmed that of the 1,000 persons present, 999 would have voted this critic a nitpicking purist pedant. (Bill Sweetland)
Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630)530-0111, drurylaneoakbrook.com, $35-$60. Through March 29.