Nine years ago, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, originally known for its lavish revivals of classic musicals, announced that it needed a large boost in funds as soon as possible in order to keep its doors open.
Luckily, the theater stayed solvent, and in recent years has become a destination for new musicals with Broadway ambitions to premiere. In recognition of its rebound, it just received the Tony Award for regional theater excellence.
That said, as a finale to a strong season that included the Broadway-bound “The Bandstand” and “A Bronx Tale,” it’s nice to see the Paper Mill going back to its traditional roots with a solid revival of “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ timeless and tragic 1957 classic.
At 59 years old, “West Side Story” feels as fresh and bold as ever, especially at a time when racial tension, xenophobia and easy access to deadly weapons has reentered the cultural debate.
Virtually any revival will incorporate the original Jerome Robbins choreography, including the balletic prologue where the Jets and Sharks square off, the dance at the gym where Tony and Maria meet for the first time, the celebratory “America” and the volatile and jagged “Cool.”
However, actually performing the choreography, and integrating it with the dynamic score and dramatic book scenes, is a daunting challenge, but director Mark S. Hoebee (Paper Mill’s artistic director) and his large cast pull it off with a fast pace and flowing ease.
Standouts include Matt Doyle’s tender-hearted Tony, Belinda Allyn’s glowing Maria, Natalie Cortez’ biting Anita and Mickey Winslow’s swaggering Riff. The 20-person orchestra ably handles the symphonic score.
For the record, this production is superior to the 2009 Broadway revival (directed by Laurents shortly before his death), which was marred by uneven casting and the awkward and unnecessary decision to translate some of the lyrics into Spanish.