Whether we’re talking about William Shakespeare or Stephen Sondheim, classic works of theater become classics because their stories hit an emotional bone for a large majority of the population. Such is the case with West Side Story, currently playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Written in 1957 by Arthur Laurents, who died in 2011 after transforming the Broadway stage with Gypsy and several other long-running musicals, West Side Story is not only a tragic love story, but also a multilayered tale of teenage angst, racial rivalries, and inner-city tensions that has resonated with theater- and moviegoers since its first appearance on the New York stage more than 50 years ago. Since then, West Side Story has won 10 Academy Awards®, three Golden Globes, 16 Tony Awards®, a Grammy®, and many other honors.
The current national tour of this award-winning musical brings a fresh perspective to this timeless and powerful love story. One of the changes that has improved on what is basically a perfect musical is that the Puerto Rican characters now speak most of their lines and sing most of their songs in their native language rather than in English, as was the case when the play was initially introduced to the American public. It’s a smooth transition that enhances the differences between the Jets and Sharks and provides another subtle level to the grittiness of the rivalry between the two gangs.
Though the 1950s version of gang warfare is definitely not as violent as today’s (for example, it is doubtful that the Crips and Bloods would have a war council to discuss what type of weapons to use in a rumble, as the Jets and Sharks do in Laurents’ tale), it is still true that cultural differences and ignorance of shared human characteristics is basically what divides gangs and perpetuates the need to battle each other.
Michelle Aravena as Anita
Evy Ortiz as Maria
Ross Lekites at Tony
Drew Foster as Riff
German Santiago as Bernardo
When the Sharks’ women, led by the charismatic, sharp-tongued Anita, brilliantly played by Michelle Aravena (who rivals Rita Moreno in both voice and sassiness), snappily move through the verses of “America” and smoothly segue from Spanish to English and back again, the song is more believable than in the original version. The same can be said for the sprightly “I Feel Pretty” with Maria (Evy Ortiz) cheerfully competing with her girlfriends, who tease each other in Spanglish as they move through the trills of the operatic scales of that song.
What has not changed is the parallel between the love story of Tony and Maria (played at DPAC by Ross Lekites and Evy Ortiz) that of the title characters of Shakespeare’s 16th century tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The opening scene when the Jets/Sharks confrontation is broken up by Officer Krupke and Lt. Shrank (Wally Dunn and Mike Boland) repeats the Shakespearean version when the Prince orders both the Capulets and Montagues to put aside their fighting.
The moment when Tony and Maria spot each other at the high school dance mirrors the moment when Romeo and Juliet first lock eyes; and when Anita is disgraced by the Jets when she goes to Doc’s pharmacy to deliver Maria’s all-important message to Tony is the equivalent of the humiliation that the Montague men visit upon the Capulet nurse when they mercilessly taunt her.
When Leonard Bernstein adapted Laurents’ book and began interpreting it for the stage, he made an important decision to have race be the central factor in the rivalry between the Jets and Sharks, ultimately mirroring the Capulet/Montague feud but creating a relevancy for the American public that has never ceased to resonate with theatergoers. It is a sad commentary on the state of American culture that race matters still matter so much, yet it proves that Bernstein had his finger on the pulse of the social fabric of the United States when he made the decision that would cement West Side Story’s place in American musical theater history.
As has been the case for the many thousands of times this show has been delivered, both on and off Broadway, cast members have included the famous and the soon-to-be-famous, as the roles in this musical are both juicy and memorable. Wally Dunn (Krupke), John O’Creagh (Doc), Michelle Aravena (Anita), German Santiago (Bernardo), and Mike Boland (Schrank) are Broadway and television veterans, whereas Evy Ortiz (Maria), Alexandra Frohlinger (Anybodys), Jon Drake (Action), and others are making their debuts in this national tour of the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story. One would expect some to be more comfortable on stage than others and that is certainly the case with this troupe.
Michelle Aravena’s Anita is a bright light in the production. She is the epitome of what one expects out of the role, moving across the stage in sharp, spirited movements during the dance sequences and belting out her solos with appropriate vigor and attitude. Evy Ortiz, who plays Maria, is equally as talented, though her voice is sweet and soaring, reaching soprano pinnacles in an effortless manner, as only Maria should do. Her Maria is not only believable but vulnerable, and when she melts into Tony (Ross Lekites), her love for him is palpable.
Stephen DeRosa’s Glad Hand evoked laughter with his micro-management of every aspect of the school dance, and John O’Creagh’s Doc sensitively deals with the students who find a sense of neighborhood comfort in his pharmacy/malt shop.
The one disappointment in this touring production of West Side Story is Ross Lekites’ Tony. The chemistry between his character and Maria appears stilted; and oftentimes, he appears unwilling to melt into her as she melts into him. The star-crossed lovers need to be passionate about each other, unwilling to release their hold on each other, even though they know they must; yet his body language does not communicate the same all-consuming passion as Ortiz does as Maria.
In addition, Lekites’ voice range often renders his lower-register notes almost indistinguishable. Many times, the lyrics disappeared when the range became a bit too low for him to deliver. Though it’s obvious that Lekites’ Tony is the guy with the rose-colored glasses, willing to believe that anything is possible, even when faced with the harsh reality of cultural differences that will take more than one couple’s love to resolve, it is often difficult to believe that his love for Maria is equal to hers for him and with that being the focal point of this drama, it is necessary for us to be drawn to him and to believe his adoration for Maria reaches deep into his soul.
There is a moment during the 1961 film version of West Side Story when Richard Beymer’s Tony threaded his fingers through Maria’s (Natalie Wood) hair and brought it to his nose, inhaling deeply. That simple movement showed how he wanted her with every molecule of his being, so much so that breathing her scent caused him to become intoxicated. That kind of emotion is what Lekites needs to bring to his Tony in order for the audience to believe his complete infatuation with Maria.
The changes made for the current production not only include the addition of Spanish to the Puerto Rican numbers, but also a more vibrant set and colorful costumes that make the audience feel as if they are watching an old black and white movie that has been revitalized with the addition of color. Particularly during the dream sequence set for “Somewhere,” effervescent changes of color on the backdrop accent the balletic choreography and underscore the poignant lyrics the lovers express to each other about hoping to “find a new way of living and a way of forgiving.” The colors are hot pinks and purples, as if mimicking a sunset, which forecasts the end of not only the relationship these young lovers have forged but also the end of the play itself.
Thankfully, the dance sequences, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins (for which he won two Academy Awards), have remained largely unchanged and are iconic in their finger-snapping, jazzy depictions of the rival gangs as well as the glorious balletic sequences that reflect Maria and Tony’s love for one another. Sometimes it’s wise to leave a classic alone; however, in this case, combining the archetypal dance moves by Robbins and unforgettable lyrics by legendary Stephen Sondheim with subtle language changes in the dialogue works to bring a masterful piece of theater into the second half of its first century of entertaining the American public.
SECOND OPINION: June 6th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/18876315/article-REVIEW–‘West-Side-Story’-music-lets-unseen-orchestra-shine? and May 31st interview with Evy Ortiz, conducted by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/18787590/article-Singing-‘beautiful-music’? (Note: You may have to register to read these articles); June 1st Burlington, NC Times-News “Teens & Twenties” preview by Lincoln Pennington: http://teensandtwenties.com/west-side-story-heading-to-dpac-this-week/; May 29th Herndon, VA PRWeb.com preview: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012WestSideStory/DPAC/prweb9537175.htm; May 20th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh interview with Joey McKneely, conducted by Larissa Mount and updated June 5th: http://raleigh.broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-Interviews-WEST-SIDE-STORY-Comes-to-DPAC-in-June-The-Creative-Process-with-Joey-McKneely-20120604; and Oct. 3, 2011 Playbill.com preview by Andrew Gans: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/155160-Ross-Lekites-and-Evy-Ortiz-Are-New-Lovers-of-West-Side-Story-Tour. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of Triangle Theater Review’s May 28th preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/05/dpac-brings-the-gritty-2009-broadway-revival-of-west-side-story-to-the-triangle-on-june-5-10/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents WEST SIDE STORY at 7:30 p.m. June 6 and 7, 8 p.m. June 8, 2 and 8 p.m. June 9, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. June 10 at DPAC, in the American Tobacco District, at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $42.50-$79.75 (including fees), except $11 Student Rush Tickets (plus service fee if purchased online), located on Row P of the Balcony.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/844724/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://www.broadwaywestsidestory.com/video.html.
The Musical: http://www.westsidestory.com/ (official website), http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000077 (Music Theatre International), http://www.sondheimguide.com/wss.html (Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=9232 (Internet Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
The Tour: http://www.broadwaywestsidestory.com/ (official website).
The Film: http://www.mgm.com/view/movie/2130/West-Side-Story/ (official web page), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story_(film) (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055614/ (Internet Movie Database).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council.
This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.