Fiddlehead Delivers Gritty, Powerful ‘West Side Story’ (5 Stars)

‘West Side Story’ – Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Director & Costume Designer, Stacey Stephens; Music Director, Charles Peltz; Choreographer; Wendy Hall; Scenic Designer, Mac Young; Lighting Designer, Dan Jentzen; Sound Designer, Brian MCoy. Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at the Strand Theatre at 543 Columbia Road in Dorchester through October 25th.

‘West Side Story’ is the perfect musical for those of us who contend that we really aren’t all that wild about musicals. Dark and gritty with a bevy of complex (and often violent) characters – despite being sourced from one of the most popular love stories in the history of the English language – ‘West Side Story’ is as much about how ignorance and hate tears apart a society as it is a love story. Sadly, the themes of hatred and intolerance are as relevant today as they were in 1957 when the musical debuted on Broadway, as evidenced by the election year rhetoric now polluting the airwaves and internet. The production currently being staged by Fiddlehead Theatre Company is itself a work of art, with a first-rate cast, brilliant choreography, and crisp direction that allows this great American musical to be fully realized.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Jets are a gang of juvenile delinquents with a “social disease”, i.e., products of a low income/education neighborhood that greatly diminishes their prospects of achieving the American Dream. They are engaged in a turf war with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang with even dimmer prospects of achieving that dream. To settle the matter once and for all, Riff (Theo Lencicki), the Jet’s leader, wants to go to the local dance to challenge Bernardo (the Sharks capo), to a rumble to settle matters once and for all. Unfortunately, his best friend and lieutenant, Tony, a Polish-American, has let it be known that he’s had it with gang life, thus setting the stage for the first song and dance smash hit of the show, “Jet Song”. By the conclusion of this number, we know we’re in for a spectacular night of theater.

Tony joins the gang at the dance and meets the girl of his dreams, paving the way for the story’s timeless love story (and, of course, it’s multiple tragic endings). In truth, the love story is about as plausible as a “Love Boat” episode, but this show gives us some of the most memorable songs found not only in musical theater, but in pop music as well (“Tonight”, “Maria”). The duets between Tony (Jeff Zwicker) and Maria (Kim Corbett) alone are worth the price of admission. Corbett is perfectly cast in the role of Maria with a kind of cherubic beauty, and is a gifted singer as well. As Tony, Zwicker projects a youthful optimism, so much so that the scene where he stabs Bernardo almost seems wildly out of character.

Pamela Turpen is a standout as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Anita’s best friend (and seemingly the only real adult among the gang members and their girls). Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva plays Bernardo with a brooding intensity, and Lencicki is convincingly thuggy as Riff. Lydia Ruth Dawson brings a playfully manic energy to the role of the tomboy, Anybodys. The cast is uniformly solid, and director Stacey Stephens wisely chose some superb dancers in filling out the secondary roles. The choreography, which I’m guessing is based on the original production, is well executed and at times nothing short of stunning.

Like Romeo and Juliet, this is typically thought of as a love story, but there are plenty of gruesome moments in this show – like the two stabbing deaths and Anita’s near rape by the Jets (not to mention Tony’s demise). There are also some still relevant social elements to the piece, such as the cops treatment of the Puerto Ricans, where they essentially promise to look the other way if the Jets can just get rid of them. There are also a number of comic moments, highlighted by “Office Krupke”, the sendup of the sociological view of the juvenile delinquents behavior. It is one of the night’s best numbers.

This show is truly one of the high points of the 2015 Boston theater season, and should not be missed. The producers are even providing transportation via the Old Town Trolley from Copley Square for ticket holders who may not be familiar with this revitalized neighborhood. So whether you drive (plenty of free parking), take the T or the Old Town Trolley (which my friend assures me was great fun), just see this excellent production. For more info, go to: