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'West Side Story' goes dark for fresh light on a musical classic

Published April 17, 2013 8:17 am

Review • Spanish lyrics and vivid violence add edge, but the love story beats strong thanks to timeless dance.
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"West Side Story" is like chocolate, sunshine or paid vacation in that there are no fence-sitters. You either adore this musical, or you don't.

And if you've yet to make up your mind after all these years — the show had its Broadway premiere in 1957 — you aren't likely to make up your mind anytime soon.

It's tempting to believe choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein would stand aghast at even the slightest alterations to their masterwork. A masterpiece is a masterpiece, after all. But when it's as well known as the love story of Maria and Tony amid the ethnic-neighborhood infighting of the Sharks and the Jets, change is good.

The national tour opening last night at Capitol Theatre, and running through April 21, is based on the 2009 Broadway revival updated by associate director David Saint, whose seen to it that the Sharks speak the Spanish of their Latino neighborhood, and that the violence of gang warfare is never sugarcoated. The choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely, who studied under Robbins himself, has been painstakingly preserved in spirit, if not also in form.

Plot summary • Surely you know it by now. Maria and Tony find love at first sight during "Dance At The Gym, segueing effortlessly into a narrative borrowed from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," complete with "Balcony Scene." Only the neighborhood and ethnic allegiances of their family and peers hold them back. Even the most stalwart fans have found it implausible that Maria would forgive Tony killing Bernardo, but there's no denying the musical's grace, poignancy and power-house dance numbers.

High point/low point • Like choosing Picasso paintings, the riches on display are many, but this production really picks up in the middle of Act 1, from "America" on. Its heart and center seems to arrive at "Somewhere," the achingly beautiful dance number of Maria and Tony's imagination, where strife gives way to love, serenity and the beauty of dance. Low point arrives at the Jets' attack on Anita, which becomes a graphic, onstage rape. It's just too jarring.

Best special or unexpected effect • From "America" to "Gee, Officer Krupke," Robbins' powerhouse dance and choreography never stops. Special mention must go to "The Rumble," a remarkable transfiguration in which the graceful ballet of a gang fight descends into grotesque figures bludgeoning each other in all-out massacre. The suspended solo notes traded between Maria and the girls in "I Feel Pretty" is also a sight and sound to behold.

Best humorous note • Chaperone Glad Hand's simultaneous attempts to hold the peace between the Jets and the Sharks, all while doing his awkward best to cool the flames of teenage lust during the dance at the gym. "Abstinence is our friend — your friend!" he tells them.

Is it worth the time or ticket price? • Most assuredly. A strong argument could be made that even a mediocre production of this American masterwork is worth your wallet and attention. This touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival hits on most cylinders. There are moments when the chemistry between MaryJoanna Grisso's Maria and Addison Reid Coe's Tony seems not quite up to balance, but those rare moments pale compared to this production's numerous strengths. The Spanish dialogue between the Jets, not to mention Anita and Maria, add true authenticity. And Anita's rape excepted, it's not nearly as dark as billed. If all you know is Robert Wise's 1961 film version, you owe it to yourself to see this before it leaves town. Life is just too short to live without at least one live stage version under your belt.



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'West Side Story'

When » Through Sunday. 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. Visit http://www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Utah or call 801-355-2787 for more information.

Bottom line • A "West Side Story" that does not go gentle into that good night. Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein get lots of new grit under the fingernails in this updated version, with results that may upset purists. But it still sings, and it's still magnificent. Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.