‘West Side Story’ represents Paper Mill Playhouse at its best

Belinda Allyn and Matt Doyle co-star as Maria and Tony in "West Side Story," at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.


Belinda Allyn and Matt Doyle co-star as Maria and Tony in “West Side Story” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

On June 12, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will be honored with the Regional Theatre Award at this year’s Tonys ceremony. And, demonstrating good timing, the theater is in top form on its latest offering, “West Side Story,” which opened on Sunday.

As directed by Mark S. Hoebee (who is also the theater’s producing artistic director), this “West Side Story” uses Jerome Robbins’ original choreography (reproduced by Alex Sanchez) and is not, in any way, a radical reinterpretation of the stage classic. But it’s pretty close to flawless. It’s hard to know what to praise first. The warmth of the singing? The raw energy and beauty of the dancing? The seamless transitions from the stark depictions of life in a lower class New York neighborhood to broad comedy, to the sweet scenes featuring star-crossed lovers Tony (played by Matt Doyle) and Maria (Belinda Allyn)?

Of course, it helps to have great material, and you can’t do much better than “West Side Story.” Virtually all of the songs, by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), are memorable. The book, by Arthur Laurents, cleverly transports Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the Upper West Side in the 1950s. And in Robbins’ daring choreography, balletic leaps and lunges become a way for street thugs to swagger.

Natalie Cortez, second from right, plays Anita in "West Side Story."

Natalie Cortez, second from right, plays Anita in “West Side Story.”

The standout in the cast of 33 is Natalie Cortez, as Maria’s outspoken friend Anita. Cortez has played the role on Broadway, too, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but she brings a fierce, scene-stealing presence to every scene she’s in.

Okay, I’ll nitpick a little. The casting feels a bit off, with Tony’s gang, the Jets, seeming a bit young and immature next to their far tougher-looking rivals, the Sharks. They’re supposed to appear equally intimidating, but they just can’t pull it off. And when Tony tries to play peacemaker between the gangs and meets resistance, he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard, not putting up much of a fight when his friends hold him back.

The backdrop effectively creates a sense of gritty urban atmosphere. The most impressive of scenic designer James Youmans’ sets was the high school gym where the dance took place — a cavernous space with an ornate window creating a sense of imposing authority, and hanging decorations adding a touch of makeshift homeyness. But surely more could have been done to make Maria’s plain balcony distinctive in some way.

I hesitate even to bring these things up, though, since they’re minor points in the grand scheme of things, and this “West Side Story” is so rewarding, overall.

“West Side Story” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse through June 26; visit papermill.org.


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