Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

West Side Story

It's difficult when reviving a well-known classic to decide whether to present the show in its traditional format or to try something different. The national tour of West Side Story currently playing in Cincinnati tries a bit of both, with varying results. The piece itself remains one of the best ever, thanks to its glorious score, exquisite choreography, and universal story of forbidden love, and a fine cast makes this tour a worthwhile one.

West Side Story, which premiered in 1957, is an updated retelling of Romeo and Juliet, setting the story in 1950s New York with the conflict existing between warring gangs, the "American" Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. When former Jet Tony falls in love with the Maria, sister of the leader of the Sharks, the tensions are only heightened.

The book by Arthur Laurents excellently captures the angst, emotions and drama of the racial tensions found in the setting, as well as the poignancy and romance of new love. The story is different from others during the same period, lacking a "feel good" tone and happy ending, but skillfully addressing the issues of the day. The score boasts music by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics supplied by a then very young Stephen Sondheim. The music ranges from classical to jazz, from delicate ballads to "action" songs full of raw emotion. The melodies contain complex rhythms, apt Latin beats, and an effective use of dissonance. Sondheim's lyrics aren't as sophisticated as his later works, but are an excellent fit to the characters and music. He captures the romantic and angry tones of the songs in his straight-forward, poetic words, and displays the wit we're now accustomed to in "America." The score boasts so many classic songs that it's difficult to comprehend that they all came from just one show—"Something's Coming," "Maria," "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," and others.

This touring production of West Side Story is based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Mr. Laurents, who passed away in 2011. His direction is recreated here by David Saint, and features some updates. Some scenes, such as the attempted rape of Anita and "Gee, Officer Krupke," are grittier than typically played. Most notably, much of the dialogue and some of the lyrics for the Puerto Rican characters are delivered in Spanish (translations by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The amount of Spanish heard on tour is less than what the recent New York production had, but is still significant. While this approach does provide more authenticity, it isn't an ideal storytelling choice for audiences made up of mostly non-Spanish speakers.

Still, this is mostly a traditional staging of the show, allowing the music, dancing, and simple story to shine through. Joey McKneely recreates Jerome Robbins' original choreography for this production, and it's splendid. The masculine, athletic dances are a highlight of any production, and capture the heightened emotions of the situations. John O'Neill capably leads a small, yet effective pit orchestra.

As Tony, Ross Lekites supplies impressive singing and a commanding stage presence and captures the conviction of someone in hope of a better, more meaningful existence. Evy Ortiz is endearing and aptly sweet as Maria and provides solid and pleasant vocals throughout. There is strong chemistry between the pair, and the passion of new love is conveyed convincingly. Michelle Aravena is a fiery Anita, and she makes the role multi-dimensional in her acting choices. Drew Foster (Riff), German Santiago (Bernardo), Jon Drake (Action) and Alexandra Frohlinger (Anybodys) do very well in supporting roles, and the entire ensemble is to be commended for their energy.

The scenic design by James Youmans suitably represents the rough streets of 1950s New York of concrete and steel. The stark lighting by Howell Binkley adds to the dramatic feel of the piece. While the fairly wide color palette used for the handsome costumes by David C. Woolard serves the audience well, it's probably a bit too theatrical and less realistic than appropriate for the setting.

West Side Story remains a classic for many reasons, and this tour only solidifies that standing. The wonderful dances, varied and first-rate score, and a group of talented performers for the tour make for an entertaining, challenging, and praiseworthy production. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 11, 2012. Tickets can be ordered by calling 1 (800) 294-1816.

-- Scott Cain

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