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'West Side Story' lands in Salt Lake City

Published April 17, 2013 7:43 pm

Touring theater • The classic musical finds a new voice in darker, Spanish-flavored version.
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Few musicals set the hearts of Broadway aficionados aflutter with the speed and impact of "West Side Story."

Leonard Bernstein's score galvanized his legendary reputation as composer. It did the same for Jerome Robbins, who produced the show's legendary choreography. Even a young Stephen Sondheim cut his teeth as lyricist on the famous Upper West Side love story amid gang violence between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the more Anglo Jets. Seldom have three theater professionals become household names through one, singular stage musical.

But the history of "West Side Story" speaks to its universal, even international appeal. When Robbins first conceived the story, he envisioned gang violence between Irish-Catholic and immigrant Jewish gangs. Bernstein proposed it be set in Los Angeles, not New York City. And of course its plot anchored in William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" fortifies its timeless sheen.

"Whether audiences speak English or not, they're riveted," said Joey McKneely, reproduction choreographer of the touring 2009 revival version, arriving at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre April 16. "I've brought the show to China, Japan, Germany and Italy. Not everyone understands the subtitles, but in dance they're transfixed."

McKneely began dancing with Robbins in 1989, studied "West Side Story" under his tutelage and, by the late 1990s was a Broadway figure prominent enough to take Robbins' torch, directing and choreographing the musical on an international schedule for 13 years running.

The traveling production features updated language and the scenes of confrontation between the Jets and Sharks are grittier, darker and more tense. In addition, the Sharks speak more Spanish lending authenticity to their Latin roots in New York City.

While this update is starker—prompting a polite warning to parents about bringing children younger than 13 to the theater—it retains all the passion and energy of the original.

Guy Mandia, Jr., the 21-year-old dancer and actor playing Action, a member of the Jets, said the renovation of the musical reminds him of why he fell in love with the musical the first time he saw it. He was a high school freshman and his older sister was in the ensemble cast. He said the story of Tony and Maria's doomed love resonated with his own upbringing in Upper Darby, Penn., a township west of Philadelphia often beset by violence.

"I didn't grow up in the safest of neighborhoods," Mandia said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles' Plantages Theatre. "The story seemed so relevant to struggles in society, that even at such a young age I related to it."

Now that he's grown, it's the musical's dancing challenges that occupy his attention.

The song-and-dance number "Cool" showcases so much all-out screaming and dancing, and the entire show is so taxing from a physical perspective that the cast must subject itself to a 90-minute ballet class before each show just to get primed.

"Sometimes we get back to the hotel and pass out for 14 hours worth of straight sleep, it's so exhausting," Mandia said.

In fact, argues Mandia, Robbins' choreography for "West Side Story" may well prove its most enduring legacy. Those close to Michael Jackson have said the musical's dance scenes were a major influence on the pop star. Mandia said McKneely's painstaking curation and updating of Robbins' legacy for the 2009 touring version demands a respect, too.

"I honestly don't think I'll ever work with a choreographer as good as him," Mandia said.

McKneely said those who know the musical only through its 1961 film version, starring Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony, are in for a treat.

"To really feel the emotion jump off the stage is its most powerful aspect. You just don't get that from the movie," McKneely said. "What the stage production truly reveals to us is the strength and power of love, and how formidable it is against the odds. Love really is something to hold on to. It never really makes sense. You can't control it or choose it—it chooses you, in a way."



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'West Side Story'

When • April 16-21. Tuesday-Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $32.50-$57.50. Recommended for ages 13 and up. Call 801-355-2787 or visit http://www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Utah for more information.