The perfect Tony. A Maria of pure enchantment. So, yes, it’s truly love at first sight in director Matthew Gardiner’s riveting new “West Side Story” — and not just for that star-crossed pair. Buoyed further by the mesmerizing Natascia Diaz as Anita, and a dancing ensemble that leaps as if the streets of Manhattan were up in the clouds, the production ensures that we once again fall deeply under this musical’s potent spell.
This emotion-packed rendering of the grittily lyrical musical by Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents is not only one of the finest revivals Signature Theatre has ever mounted. It also solidifies Gardiner’s claim to being among the top young musical-theater directors in the land.
If you’re an enthusiast, you’ve no doubt seen the landmark 1957 show sometime, somewhere. But maybe never from this close — no audience member on the ground level at Signature sits more than five rows from the stage — and quite possibly, never a version of such heart-pumping passion. For in Austin Colby and MaryJoanna Grisso, the director has chosen his Tony and Maria with exquisite care. With such a lovely pairing to kick the proceedings into amorous gear, all the rest flows with an absorbing grace and urgency.
Gardiner and set designer Misha Kachman place the action of “West Side Story” on a thrust stage with a few incidental furnishings, the spectators arranged around it in a horseshoe. Above the actors, in a side balcony, Jon Kalbfleisch conducts a 16-piece orchestra, larger than what dwells in many a Broadway pit. And the sound it produces is of the dreamily full-bodied variety. If there is any theater melody you want to hear played all out, it’s one by Bernstein.
The music seems to lift the ensemble, more than two dozen strong, and choreographer Parker Esse, inspired by Robbins’s original dances, whips it into a disciplined corps that’s thrilling to watch. That many bodies moving in unison in so compact a performance space magnifies the energy. And so, in a balletic prologue, during which we’re introduced to the competing gangs, the Anglo Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, and the ensuing “The Dance at the Gym,” where Anglo Tony is bewitched by Puerto Rican Maria, the pulse of a particularly fervent “West Side Story” begins to pound.
By this point, we’ve encountered Tony in the guise of the strong and vulnerable, sad-eyed Colby, who in an enthralling version of “Something’s Coming” delivers one of the best versions of the song you’ll ever hear. Soon to come is a gorgeous balcony scene with Grisso, on Maria’s fire escape, and the singing of an impassioned “Tonight.” (Have these two characters ever seemed so convincingly hot for each other?) And that’s followed by Diaz leading a rendition of “America,” the rousing paean to Anita’s love of the relative benefits of life stateside. She’s ably assisted here by actresses portraying other Shark women: Katie Mariko Murray, Olivia Ashley Reed, Jasmine Alexis and Ilda Mason. (Reed, Murray and Mason return to support superb songbird Grisso in a delightful “I Feel Pretty.”)
Diaz brings to the production her elegant dancing skills, trademark ferociousness of commitment and something else: grand comic timing. In her scenes with Maria or her lover, Shark leader Bernardo (Sean Ewing), this Anita radiates a generous spirit — the brutal snuffing out of that is one of the evening’s tragedies — and even more winningly, a piquant wit.
For gang members called on to perform such un-gangstery feats as delicate pirouettes, the actors cast here look suitably athletic. Although Max Clayton’s Riff comes across as more debonair than most leaders of the Jets, he moves terrifically, and his knife fight under the highway with Ewing’s brooding Bernardo unfolds explosively. As Action, Ryan Fitzgerald is an especially impressive Jet who shows off his acting chops in an excellent incarnation of the satirical “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Maria Rizzo — the Gypsy Rose Lee of Signature’s “Gypsy” — persuasively takes on the role of female Jet wannabe Anybodys, and DJ Petrosino is aces in his efforts to give some dimension to Chino, cold-shouldered by the Tony-besotted Maria.
Meanwhile, the indispensable Bobby Smith performs two essential, conciliatory roles here, first appearing as Glad Hand, the ineffectual chaperone who attempts to get Sharks and Jets dancing with each other in the gym, and then as the despairing Doc, in whose candy shop the Jets hold their war councils. The portrayals are restrained demonstrations of how supporting roles can have outsize impacts.
The maturity with which Gardiner conducts his “West Side Story” confirms an impression of his abilities with classic musicals that has been rising with each of his recent productions, starting with his “Dreamgirls” in 2012 and continuing with last year’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” Now, there’s this marvelous “West Side Story” on his résumé and in our midst, leaving an audience all at once sated — and hungry for what he does next.
West Side Story Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Choreography, Parker Esse, based on Jerome Robbins’s original dances. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Lane Elms; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. With Kurt Boehm, John Leslie Wolfe, Russell Sunday, J. Morgan White, Jacob Beasley, Ryan Kanfer, Joseph Tudor, Tony Neidenbach, Jamie Howes, Michael Graceffa, Colleen Hayes, Jennifer Cordiner, Eric Rivas, Ryan Sellers, Zachary Norton, Shawna Walker and Cami Spring. About 2 hours 40 minutes. $40-$96. Through Jan. 31 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.