Story: In this classic American updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, two young lovers risk the anger of their respective peer groups by falling in love on New York City’s West Side, circa 1957. Tony, a member of the working-class Jets teen gang, changes his attitude about the Puerto Rican Sharks and their families when he is instantly smitten with Shark leader Bernardo’s sister, Maria, at a dance. As with the Bard’s tragedy, however, there is no happy ending for these lovers as the smoldering hatred between the two gangs erupts into tragic violence.
Highlights: One of the greatest and most enduring of all musicals in American theater history enjoyed a record-setting Broadway revival in 2009 when book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the two surviving members of the quartet of artists who created West Side Story, agreed to an updating of some language in the book and some of the ingenious choreography of the late Jerome Robbins. The ‘rehab’ project resulted in a run of 775 performances (the original 1957 production had 732 presentations), closing in January 2011 before beginning a national tour.
With music composed by the late Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story showcased the collaborative genius of four titans of the American musical theater. The updated revival features Spanish lyrics and dialogue in less than 10 percent of the show from In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda for the Sharks in selected scenes and songs, revitalized choreography by Joey McKneely and riveting direction by Laurents protégé David Saint. The result is a scintillating and vibrant rendition of a true Broadway treasure.
Other Info: All of the changes made to this newest version of West Side Story are smart and successful. Certainly, e.g., it makes sense for the Sharks to speak a dialect that is an amalgam of their native Spanish and the street English of their adopted new home. Additionally, McKneely’s choreography is raw, athletic and threatening at times, as would befit gang members, as well as throwing in some sexual suggestiveness that wouldn’t be a stretch for street thugs.
As with past productions of West Side Story, the real star of the show is the choreography, which pulls you in from the prologue as it sets the menacing mood for the gang warfare. There are a number of fine individual performances, led by Michelle Aravena as Bernardo’s main squeeze, Anita. One of the show’s many highlights is the lively version of America sung and danced by Aravena and the “Shark girls” as they educate their friend Rosalia (Gizel Jimenez) on the advantages of life in the States.
Evy Ortiz sparkles, both in presentation and with her finely smooth voice, as Maria, while Ross Lekites does well as her ill-fated lover, Tony. Their duet on Tonight showcases the romance and optimism of their characters, later accentuated in the sensational company reprise near the end of the first act.
German Santiago carries the bluster and bravado of Bernardo, while Drew Foster serves well as the Jets’ leader, Riff. Others contributing among the fine cast are Alexandra Frohlinger as the girl Jet wannabe Anybodys, Jay Garcia as Maria’s appointed beau Chino, Wally Dunn as buffoonish Officer Krupke, Mike Boland as the bullying Lt. Schrank and John O’Creagh as the benevolent hangout proprietor Doc.
Technically, the show is a marvel as well, with an effectively seamy set designed by James Youmans that in one scene actually shows the nether side of a Gotham bridge, with dazzling lighting by Howell Binkley that sets the mood for fight scenes or for the famous balcony rendezvous of Tony and Maria. David Woolard’s costumes look right for the mid-‘50s era, as does the wigs and makeup design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer. John O’Neil conducts the rousing orchestra that accompanies the performers so engagingly to give the lush Bernstein score its musical due.
This re-imagined West Side Story is a smart and clever combination of the old and the new that breathes new life into an enduring American standard.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Musical: West Side Story
Group: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
Dates: Through February 26
Tickets: From $15; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus and Carol Rosegg