Skip to content Skip to footer

CLO’s ‘West Side Story’ is a Beautiful, Thoughtful, and Artistic Rendition of an American Classic 

 By JESSICA NEU

West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 at the height of what is known as the Golden Age of Broadway. This post-WW2 era ushered in a plethora of large-scale productions with large companies, elaborate sets, and what have become iconic songs. 

Audiences are privy to roughly 48 hours of a long-standing feud between rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. The Jets are NY natives, whereas the Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. Their story is told through Arthur Laurents‘ words, Stephen Sondheim‘s lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein‘s score. While the music is regarded as some of Bernstein and Sondheim’s best, with such classic songs as “America,” “Somewhere,” and “I Feel Pretty,” what separates West Side Story from other shows that opened around this time is Jerome Robbins‘ original and groundbreaking choreography. West Side Story was the first musical in which choreography was used to tell the story. Robbins blended jazz, lyrical ballet, and some Fosse-like elements to bring movement, emotions, and action to life. Robbins depicted gang fights, true love, sexual assault, and everyday life on the streets through dance, making West Side Story a classic and groundbreaking American musical. 

Director and choreographer Baayork Lee brings this famous, historic show to the Benedum Center as Pittsburgh CLO’s second offering of its 2024 summer season. Along with Scenic Designer Leo Meyers, Lee brings a classic revival of the original production. Unlike the show’s fifth Broadway revival in 2020, which took a minimalist approach to the set with the characters adorned with face tattoos, used iPhones, wore mini-dresses instead of full skirts, and performed fluid Latinx-influenced dances instead of the original’s ballet-based choreography. 

Baayork Lee Fulfills Bucket List With Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘West Side Story’

This CLO’s production remains stylistically faithful to the original, yet the show still feels modern, mainly due to Meyer’s set design and Paul Miller‘s lighting design. The show opens and immediately projects a gritty, authentic, hazy ambiance as Meyer and Miller combine traditional Broadway set pieces with projected images of inner-city streets onto scrims and backdrops. The result is a set with depth, soul, tension, and hope. 

As the audience begins to meet the Jets and the Sharks along with their family members, the theme of “What does it mean to be American?” is immediately palpable and remains a question that we continue to grapple with for the duration of the show. Davis Wayne‘s Riff, the leader of the Jets, is tough as nails, no-nonsense, and certainly does not want any of the immigrant Sharks on his home territory. Wayne portrays Riff with conviction and a subtle anger that is all too reminiscent of the daily micro-aggressions that minorities continue to face in present-day America. Riff’s friend, Tony (Spencer LaRue), is another jet who falls in love at first sight with Maria (Sabina Collazo) during a dance event at the local gymnasium. The dance involves both the Sharks and the Jets, and as tensions run high, Maria’s brother and leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (Giuseppe Bausilio), and Riff determine that their rival gangs will meet later that evening for a fight to settle the ongoing conflict.  

However, before the inevitable fight between the gangs, audiences witness Tony and Maria’s love blossom. With expert lighting from Miller, Tony and Maria’s surroundings blur as they can only see each other. Perfectly spot-lit downstage, their love story unfolds like something from a dream. This dream of a love story becomes the focal point of the previously mentioned inquiry into what it means to be an American. Maria is Puerto Rican. According to many, she should not even be in America, much less deserving of loving a citizen. Their palpable love connection is strengthened through both actors’ acting and vocal prowess. Collazo executes Sondheim’s operatic falsettos with effortless precision. At the same time, LaRue croons his way through numbers, such as “Something’s Coming,” in a style reminiscent of classic Broadway moments that are not as common in more modern Broadway musicals. Their breathtaking harmonies, juxtaposed with Lee’s choreography as the company supports the tumultuous storyline, make this production of West Side Story a refreshingly classic production. 

Adriana Negron delivers a fervent portrayal of Anita, whose fierce attitude, soaring vocals, and Latina flare would make the late Chita Rivera proud. 

West Side Story was unlike any other musical of its time, and the CLO makes the show feel original again. It is easy to forget, or not even realize, how often other artists sample parts of West Side Story. From the late Selena’s cover of “A Boy Like That,” to Gap’s 1999-2000 marketing campaign, to countless covers of “Somewhere,” to subtle mentions or references of the music in other shows (e.g., Jonathan Larson references lyrics in his musical, Tick, Tick…Boom), West Side Story is an American cultural icon. However, seeing CLO’s production of the show in its entirety reminds us that this show truly stands in a league of its own. With stories of police brutality, immigration reform, and the question of what it is to be an American delicately choreographed and woven into a tale of forbidden love, Lee and the CLO cast make an iconic musical, original once again while reminding us of the generational divides, racial tensions, and ethnic epithets that still permeate our society. 

After much violence ensues, business owner Doc (Ken Bolden) speaks to the Jets and says, “You make this world lousy,” to which one of the Jets replies, ” That’s the way we found it.” 

At the end of Tony and Maria’s “One Hand, One Heart,” my six-year-old whispered, “That was really beautiful, mommy.” 

Gen Z is inheriting a world that is partially lousy, but if we can self-reflect a bit more and realize that our streets are large enough for all humans, we may all discover that America can be “really beautiful.”  

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh CLO’s production of West Side Story is at the Benedum Center through Sunday, June 16th. For tickets visit: