Media Theatre delivers a tantalizing, if uneven, 'West Side Story'

Tony Maria Publish
Tony and Maria (Grant Struble and Patti-Lee Meringo) in "West Side Story" at Media Theatre.

West Side Story may feature a strong romantic lead in Maria, but every time I encounter the celebrated musical about star-crossed lovers in modern New York, I’m taken aback by how singularly and thoroughly it is a masculine affair.

The world we encounter in the classic 1950s musical is thoroughly defined by the dudes, whether they belong to the all-white Jets gang or the Latino Sharks.

It’s no wonder the story’s few female characters seem so utterly out of sorts.

The gender imbalance is all too evident in the Media Theatre’s energetic and sometimes brilliant -- if uneven -- staging of West Side Story now through June 11 at the company’s theater on East State Street.

Directed and choreographed with a beautiful combination of panache and precision by Dan Dunn (Miracle on 34th Street on Broadway, Sesame on Broadway at Madison Square Garden), the production is distinguished by energetic, dynamic renditions of the all-male scenes, including the climactic rumble between the Jets and Sharks.

The quieter, more female-centric scenes aren’t nearly as successful, most notably the love scenes between the story’s urban iteration of Romeo and Juliet, Caucasian bad boy Tony (Grant Struble, Bus Stop at Bristol Riverside Theater) and Latina beauty Maria (Patti-Lee Meringo, A Little Night Music at the Arden). Struble and Meringo deliver strong individual performances but falter when  they are together.

Of course, everyone knows West Side Story.

A uniquely American take on Shakespeare’s young lovers, it was born of a unique collaboration between composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and then 20-something lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway debut.

It opened on Broadway in 1957, playing for 732 performances before going on tour. It also inspired a brilliant 1961 film directed by the great Robert Wise.

The story is set amid the ethnically charged gang scene in New York, though its depiction of life on the street seems quaint and gentle when you consider the gang violence that erupted in New York from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Media Theatre production opens with a wonderful, crazy, vivid sequence of pure movement without dialogue. About 15 young men in period threads tumble onto the stage in apparent chaos, only to reshuffle themselves into complex, synchronized patterns.

The animal intensity and crackling electricity that drives the young men is sustained throughout the two acts, exploding in a climactic, bloody fight scene. Strong performances throughout heighten the tension and sense of danger, most notably Zachary Chiero (The Addams Family at Act 2 Playhouse) as Riff, Avery Sobczak (Gypsy at Media Theatre) as Bernardo, and Dante Brattelli (A Christmas Story at Media Theatre) as Chino. They outshine and upstage star Struble in most of the group scenes.

The energy and immediacy of the all-male scenes is entirely absent in those devoted to female characters.

Sequences that explore Maria’s relationships with her gal pals feel static and  underdeveloped, despite several strong performances, including Victoria Guiteras May (West Side Story at Greater Ocean City Theatre Company) as Maria’s confidante Anita and Emily Kaye Lynn (Sleeping Beauty at People’s Light) as tomboy Anybodys.

More troubling still, the famous Romeo and Juliet-cribbed love scenes between Maria and Tony seem to lack conviction.

The two actors simply don’t generate much heat -- emotional or sexual. They seem awkward around each other and very much disconnected.

A playful scene that has them address a pair of dressmaking mannequins as their respective parents comes off silly, and an  impromptu wedding ceremony is jejune.

Strong singers and dancers both, Struble and Meringo make a fatal mistake by underplaying their characters’ sexuality. They behave more like siblings than lovers.

Perhaps I am quibbling. I enjoyed the musical and loved the intricately composed dance scenes. I just wish I could believe in this version of Tony and Maria. 

West Side Story, through June 11 at the Media Theatre for the Performing Arts, 104 E. State St., Media. Tickets: $42-$50; seniors $35-$45; children 12 & under $25-$30. Information: 610-891-0100, mediatheatre.org.