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Chilina Kennedy and Paul Nolan were knockouts as West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony.

Photo by David Hou/Images are the property of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and shall be used for promotion and news purposes only during the

4 out of 4 stars

West Side Story

  • Based on a concept and originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins
  • Book by Arthur Laurents
  • Music by Leonard Bernstein
  • Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
  • Directed by Gary Griffin

West Side Story is, as they say, having a moment. A bilingual revival directed by co-creator Arthur Laurents has been doing boffo box office on Broadway for months, while Gary Griffin's more traditional staging opened with a bang in Stratford last week.

It's not a competition, of course, but, well, in a street rumble, the gang whose turf is north of the border would win. No matter what weapon is chosen - singing, dancing, acting - Stratford's production of this 1957 retelling of Romeo and Juliet is unbeatable.

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Griffin's production has an electric charge that keeps the hairs on your skin tingling from start to finish, thanks to two incredible leads cast as the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria and Rick Fox's assertive musical direction.

But the one element that lifts it into the superlative stratosphere is Sergio Trujillo's renovation of Jerome Robbins's choreography for the Stratford's Festival theatre's thrust stage.

Thrust is the imperative word here: Robbins's finger-snapping choreography, so often parodied, explodes into the audience with an unmockable energy. It's turbo-charged and thrilling and makes the violent dance of the Jets, the American gang, and the Sharks, the Puerto Ricans, seem genuinely threatening.

No one comes off better here than Paul Nolan, who performs a miracle on the flat character of Tony. Magnetism and teenage vitality pour out of his pores.

When he arrives at Maria's fire-escape balcony after they first meet at the school dance, Nolan's Tony leaps into the air, grabs the railing on Douglas Paraschuk's jungle gym of a set and yanks himself up onto the balcony with one flex of his biceps. This feat of athleticism led to spontaneous applause from the audience, but was also a potent physical expression of the character's soaring feelings.

This is a Tony who fully believes his love for Maria has made him invincible to the mix of switchblades, racism and economic insecurity that will eventually lead to his tragic demise.

As his Puerto Rican partner, Maria, Chilina Kennedy is a goofier Maria than we might expect, but she positively glows and her voice knocks you over. Her arc is impressively charted and her final scene - shockingly staged by Griffin, even if you know what's coming - absolutely destroying.

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Led by a fierce Riff (Brandon Espinoza) and Action (Matt Alfano), the Jets are a top-notch set of "juvenile delinquents," who, especially in the number Cool , seem always on the verge of exploding.

Andrew Cao is a sharp Bernardo, leading the Sharks, while Jennifer Rias's Anita is primarily comic, a decision that rightly throws the focus on the leads. (On Broadway, the production feels more like Anita's play than Maria's.)

The New York production has some fabulous ideas - the Puerto Ricans sing and speak in Spanish - but director Laurents tries too hard to turn the musical into something gritty and realistic that it is not and cannot be.

There's no gimmick with this West Side Story - just a robust staging that focuses on the emotional journeys of the main characters and sensitive readings of Laurents's sparse text. It's fabulous.

West Side Story plays at Stratford until Oct. 31.

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