The Sharks and Jets Rumble in Millburn

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Belinda Allyn (Maria) and Matt Doyle (Tony). Photo by Matthew Murphy

West Side Story, a show that shook up the American musical theatre when it opened on Broadway in 1957, is on view through June 26 at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse.

Revivals often suffer in the shadow of the original and/or the motion picture adaptation. But the current production, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, is an exciting look into a rough Manhattan neighborhood where rival gangs posture and sometimes fight over turf. The Jets, composed mostly of Polish kids, are headed by Riff (Mikey Winslow). The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (German Alexander), are the newcomers to the area. There’s no love lost between the two factions.

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The Jets from “West Side Story” at Paper Mill Playhouse. Photo by Matthew Murphy

But one night at a dance in “neutral territory,” former Jet Tony (Matt Doyle) spots Maria (Belinda Allyn), Bernardo’s sister. Unaware of Maria’s background, Tony is instantly smitten, leading to escalating conflict between the rival gangs.
One of the best aspects of this production is that the dances are based on the original Jerome Robbins choreography. Staged with excitement and tension by Alex Sanchez, these dances convey arrogance, threat, violence, and sometimes euphoria. The show opens with the Jets asserting their ownership of the street as they crouch, snap their fingers and seem to soar, arms reaching upward as if to touch the sky.
Mr. Alexander plays Bernardo with a dignity that won’t be dimmed by the Jets’ insults. He carries himself like a prince. Natalie Cortez is perfectly cast as Anita, Bernardo’s firebrand girlfriend. She lights up the stage, along with all the Sharks’ girls, in the high-spirited rendition of “America,” debating the pros and cons of living in an often unwelcoming country. With its exciting music by Leonard Bernstein and biting lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this clever satirical skewering of the American Dream is a showstopper.
The role of Tony is often problematic. He gets to sing some terrific songs — “Maria,” “Something’s Coming” — but as written, the character is rather bland and unconvincingly dreamy, without the appeal or dramatic impact of Bernardo. Mr. Doyle overcomes this drawback with a charming stage presence strong enough to suggest that he could both survive in a tough milieu and strive to escape it, and a lilting voice that does justice to the great songs he’s given. The fire escape scene, taken directly from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, is a highlight, as Tony and Maria duet on the show’s most famous number, “Tonight.” Their second-act duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” is a foreshadowing of tragedy to come as the two lovers express their devotion.
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The Jets from “West Side Story” at Paper Mill Playhouse. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The brilliance of the score is epitomized in a reprise of “Tonight,” as the Sharks, the Jets, Anita, Tony and Maria all look forward to what the upcoming evening will hold. As each character or group sings, Charlie Morrison’s lighting highlights them until the entire company sings in counterpoint as the tempo escalates. This is truly an exhilarating moment.
West Side Story is a show that has aged well. Director Hoebee has been respectful of the original and cast outstanding talent to bring its characters to life. The scenic design by James Youmans suggests the gritty world of the tenements — fire escapes, a small candy store, Maria’s bedroom, a school gym, all in the shadow of a bridge that looms overhead, blocking out sunlight from the mean streets below.
A recent Broadway production replaced some of Sondheim’s lyrics with Spanish in a couple of songs, which created controversy. It’s one thing to tinker with a musical that has a troubled book. This was done some years ago with “Candide,” another Bernstein show with a superb score, and it breathed new life into the property. With a show so well crafted, however, why tweak? This production is true to the original. If you know the cast album, you’ll find the songs are performed as written, by an amazingly talented cast.
West Side Story will be performed eight times a week: Wednesday at 7:30 P.M., Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30 P.M., Friday at 8 P.M., Saturday at 1:30 and 8 P.M., and Sunday at 1:30 and 7 P.M. Tickets start at $32 and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at

About Author

For over 25 years, I was the Film and Home Entertainment Reviewer for "The Villadom TIMES," a New Jersey weekly newspaper, and have written for several other publications. I developed and taught a Film Studies program for two New York City high schools that included Film History, Horror/Fantasy, and Film Making.