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"West Side Story" at the Marcus Center
Something's Coming

The Jets are in gear: West Side Story at the Marcus Center.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

A lot has happened in the 55 years since West Side Story electrified New York theatergoers. The violence and nihilism that shocked Broadway audiences (Brooks Atkinson’s New York Times review called the material “horrifying”) seems ho-hum in the 24-hour-news-cycle age of bleeding leads and R-rated exploitation flicks. Forget the world of contemporary gangs--Officer Krupke would have his hands full with Cartman and the South Park boys.

But the West Side Story that opened at the Marcus Center Tuesday night (a touring version of the 2009 Broadway revival) shows that the musical hasn’t lost its emotional power or visceral kick. After all, the show had a dream team of creators—composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. And it’s not surprising the director of this version, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book of the show, tinkers little with the original formula.

When Laurents does tinker, it’s a mostly failed attempt to bring the musical into the 21st century. Here, the Sharks speak both English and Spanish, as recent Puerto Rican immigrants would have. But for non-Spanish speakers, this nod to authenticity mostly serves to cloud some of the dramatic scenes, where we can only parse some of the dialogue. And it doesn’t do any favors to the songs, where Spanish and English sung simultaneously sacrifices some of the coherence of Bernstein’s choral writing (in the famous quintet). Besides, the most wincing moments of dialogue today are not due to Puerto Ricans speaking English, but to the cornball slang. Got it, Daddy-O?

Still, enough survives to capture the glories of this great pop-dance opera. Robbins’ longtime assistant, Joey McKneely, has lovingly created the great dance numbers. And this revival cast attacks them with skill and energy. Bernstein’s full-orchestra suite of West Side Story music has become a symphony orchestra staple, so it’s not surprising that the 17-piece orchestra here conducted by John O’Neill sounds a little thin.

The performances capture the glory of Bernstein’s great songs. Ross Lekites as Tony has a sweet tenor that soars in “Maria” and “Something’s Coming.” And Evy Ortiz matches him well in the pair’s signature duets. Michelle Aravena brings power to Anita’s songs and fiery dances. Hearing them perform songs that have been in the canon for almost 50 years, you can hear the new generation’s tendency to exaggerate dynamics and rush tempos. But that’s the price we pay for a decade of American Idol.

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