On Stage: A New “West Side Story”

It began with just a brief outburst, almost like a musical exclamation point, from the Benedum Center orchestra to immediately jump start “West Side Story” and its ’50’s interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.”

But just like Jerome Robbins and company updated the Shakespearean tragedy from battling families in Verona to warring street gangs in New York City in 1957, director Arthur Laurents saw fit to tinker with Robbins’ masterpiece once more.

It is considered by some to be the best musical ever written, a taut and suspenseful blend of drama, music and dance, unlike anything that had come before and since. But times, they are a-changin’ and Mr. Laurents, the playwright who wrote the original Broadway script, thought that he could bring a few new twists to the production.

The major innovation was the inclusion of the Spanish language for the Sharks, so important in the face of today’s Latino diaspora, which has grown enough to make the United States virtually a dual language country.

It was a good concept — even in the New York revival, the production was bringing in Latino audiences, a new niche with great potential. However in this touring production, set to run through Sunday, the Spanish sections were actually trimmed. Even so, they still left a few holes in the story fabric for those who didn’t understand the language and even for those who knew the gist and even quotable lines of the story.

Yet this was a production that nonetheless crackled with defiant energy, in some ways even more than that Broadway version I saw last summer. And it did justice to the iconic movie, mostly directed by Mr. Robbins himself, which set an unparalleled standard in 1961 and remains one of the top film classics ever.

The Benedum Center orchestra perfectly captured the intoxicating rhythmic underpinnings of Leonard Bernstein’s score and contributed mightily to the mounting tensions on stage. Support vocals were strong in general, particularly in the interchanging perspectives of the “Tonight Quintet.” But the romantic leads occasionally faded in and out in the pivotal duets between Maria and Tony, drawing attention to the inherent difficulties in the music.

This “West Side Story” was, however, visually arresting, primarily due to the choreography, which Joey McKneeley infused with Robbins’ spirit. That gave it an immediacy, even though it harnessed a style that has changed considerably in the ensuing years. Highlights included the opening sequence, which seemed to cover so much territory, as well as the dances at the gym, smoothly transitioning from a competitive mambo to a simple love duet (remember those soft snaps?) and back again. And the much-touted restoration of the Dream Ballet gave a balance to the second act, a brief moment of respite before launching into the final dramatic moments.

It appeared that Mr. McKneeley did not change much. Only the staging of “Officer Krupke” looked out of place, more like an over-the-top “Ace Ventura” than “West Side Story.”

But the rest looked like it belonged, a terrific effort by a young cast who never had the opportunity to observe the ’50’s — before computer and cell phone, when alienation had a whole other meaning.

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