In the most iconic scene from West Side Story, Tony, the show’s neo-Romeo, climbs a ladder to a fire escape where Maria, his Juliet, awaits. By now, it’s an overly familiar moment, but Stumptown Stages’ production of the 1957 Leonard Bernstein-scored musical, in the Winningstad Theatre through Oct. 27, injects it with fresh visual life. As Tony (Alexander Trull) ascends toward Maria (Tina Mascaro), lights illuminate his silhouette on a vast backdrop that features a sweeping cityscape. It’s as if Tony’s passion has given him the power to soar among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
That image beautifully taps into the play’s maximalist appeal. Nothing in West Side Story—not love, not friendship, not anger—is small. The production’s director, Patrick Nims, understands that, and while his retelling is occasionally unsteady (especially when it attempts to blunt the accusations of racism leveled at the play), it is also energetic and exciting enough to entice newcomers and charm steadfast fans.
West Side Story almost wasn’t west at all. An early iteration called East Side Story applied the Romeo and Juliet model to a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl. Eventually, the title changed and the story was restyled as a tale of turf warfare between between an Anglo gang (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks). When Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, whose brother leads the Sharks, fall in love at a dance, they face the wrath of both sides.
It’s notable that the title of the play is not Tony and Maria. West Side Story is about a place as much as it is about people. You watch not only to savor the heat generated by its amped-up lovers, but for the privilege of spending time in a gleefully exaggerated version of New York where true love can be ignited with a single look and meaningless grudges are imbued with mythic grandeur.
Scenic designer Demetri Pavlatos has tapped into the (very) heightened realism in the play by crafting a set that evolves dramatically. A chain-link fence, for instance, isn’t just a background detail—it’s a living object that can be used as a symbolic barrier between the Jets and the Sharks or as a cage that encircles Tony and Maria, signaling their inevitable doom.
While Pavlatos’ designs are an effective update, the overall production is not. West Side Story has received justifiable criticism for its racist depiction of Puerto Ricans as generic hoodlums, a problem that Nims tries to confront by staging some scenes and songs in Spanish. While the production’s commitment to authenticity is admirable, its lack of subtitles will be frustrating for audiences who don’t speak Spanish. Not understanding what many of the characters are saying means that we become less engaged with their stories, which undercuts the play’s idealistic goal: to reveal the shared humanity on both sides of the Jets-Sharks divide.
This change doesn’t ruin the play. It simply exists alongside the production’s superior creative choices, just as the script’s insensitivities exist alongside its dramatic power. For now, West Side Story isn’t going anywhere—a new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg will be released in 2020. That may be the moment when many people decide whether the play is ripe for further reinventions or should finally be set aside.