The Muny has saved the best for last. "West Side Story," arguably the greatest American musical, pulsates with passion and power, scorching the vast stage.
In this vibrant, red-hot production that closes the 95th season, every element has come together flawlessly to create a magical evening under serious moonlight. Gordon Greenberg (last year's "Pirates") has tautly directed the strongest ensemble of the season. After the bar-raising "South Pacific" and "Les Miserables," that is high praise.
It's rare that everyone can sing, dance and act at the highest level, and in this case, the cast is mesmerizing in this timeless American classic. Read the credits, and you'll find most of them have been on Broadway in the 2009 revival or in national touring companies. Their familiarity with this difficult and challenging material is obvious in the fluidity in the landmark Jerome Robbins' dances, and the seamless musical numbers.
Kyle Dean Massey's tough, tender Tony grabs hold of "Something's Coming" and "Maria," showing you his exceptional vocal range, before he and the delicate, gifted Ali Ewoldt effortlessly combine for a chill-inducing "Tonight" duet. Her innocent, yearning Maria is incandescent.
Manuel Herrera and Natalie Cortez are a potent Bernardo and Anita, setting an authentic tone by not being caricatures.
Curtis Holbrook, a Muny favorite after five captivating performances in recent years, commands the stage yet again as the intense Riff, leader of the Jets. Another standout is Drew Foster as the quick-tempered Action and Kaitlin Mesh as the tomboy Anybodys. In adult roles, St. Louis golden guy Ken Page plays the world-weary Doc, Tony's boss, and Michael James Reed is an imposing Lt. Shrank.
From the first strains of Leonard Bernstein's stirring overture, one gets goosebumps, and the emotional, urgent, eloquent hits keep coming: "Jet Song," "America," "Somewhere," "Cool," "One Hand One Heart," "A Boy Like That," and "Gee, Officer Krupke."
The performers find every nuance in each lyric and dance step to make this 1957 musical as fresh and relevant today as anything currently on Broadway. A milestone 56 years ago, it was the first musical to combine social problems (initially viewed as dark and depressing), such sophisticated music, and feature extended dance.
"West Side Story" brings Arthur Laurents' contemporary version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" to vivid life, igniting an urban street gang warfare between the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (Polish, Irish, Italian-Americans) -- for a small turf in a blue-collar Manhattan neighborhood.
The teenage rebels, clad in sneakers and jeans, explode -- their anger, frustration, hopes and dreams all jumbled with raging hormones and tumultous feelings. This burgeoning youth culture of the time is expressed through the innovative choreography as well as Stephen Sondheim's lyrics (his Broadway debut!).
Ethnic tensions escalate in the dance at the gym, leading to a war council and ultimately a tragic rumble that solemnly ends the first act. The devastating outcome does offer a glimmer of hope, as does a meaningful Dream Ballet.
This production is breathtaking, enhanced by the lighting design of Rob Denton and the stunning set design by Robert Mark Morgan -- a gritty view of tenement windows, fire escapes and neighborhood grids in a jigsaw puzzle deftly moved for each scene's needs. The electrifying music direction by James Moore and the brilliant choreography by Chris Bailey heighten it masterfully.
The awestruck audience -- a capacity crowd -- was on its feet quickly for waves of applause.
This season has been marked by exceptional talent, and "West Side Story" demonstrates how glorious a Muny production can be under the guidance of Mike Isaacson. The last time I saw "West Side Story" at the Muny was 1982, and Barry Williams, aka Greg Brady, played Tony. Enough said.
"West Side Story" is at 8:15 p.m. through Sunday at The Muny outdoor amphitheater in St. Louis' Forest Park.