The national tour of "West Side Story," which visits Broadway Sacramento at the Community Center Theatre now through January 29, updates a classic, not with modern reinventions and sets, but with a somewhat darker take on the musical's Romeo and Juliet story, as well as with new Spanish dialogue added for a more authentic and balanced feel. But much of the production stays true to tradition, magically recreating Jerome Robbin's original choreography and paying tribute to all the original Leonard Bernstein songs, including "Something's Coming," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart," "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere." The cast, too, sticks to the show's roots while providing outstanding vocal performance, and James Youmans' basic sets keep the production simple.
The sets are created to move on and off stage quickly to make room for dance numbers that use the whole stage. The souvenir program for the show states that the sets convey the harsh realities that the characters live in, but the simplistic sets don't speak to that as much as they could - functional, especially for a touring cast, but not fantastic. The dancing they make way for gives the show much of its energy, making it well worth the sacrifice in sets, although many will prefer the toned-down sets.
Ultimately, it's up to the performers to make an old, but lovable musical fresh and exciting. "West Side Story's" chorus provides solid enough vocal support, and the Sharks and the Jets gangs make Jerome Robbin's choreography, recreated by Joey McKneely, pop. Thanks to dance moves designed to make a fight artistic, the fight scenes flow wonderfully rather than creating awkward and quick punches and stabs. And as the sets move aside for a dream-like sequence danced to the song, "Somewhere," a beautiful picture of a utopia world appears, revolving around the love of Tony and Maria, modern day Romeo and Juliets.
Ross Lekites and Evy Ortiz play the star-crossed lovers: Tony, a Jet, and Maria, the sister of a Shark. The two are caught in the middle of the gangs' violent feuds, which even lead to an attempted rape. The close-call, rape scene receives a much more dramatic and arousing staging in this version, evidence of the production's attempt to convince audiences of the harsh reality of gang life. The rape attempt seems out of character for the Jets, but displays how far over The Edge a person can go under the right, or wrong, circumstances. The darker, more explicit and vulgar staging continues with a provocative rendition of "Gee, Officer Krupke," during which a few of the Jets make fun of the police and point out the unjust violence of the forces. This comes in addition to the already obvious racial preferences of the police in the show. In contrast, innocent Maria knows little of violence, and gang member Tony reaches out for a pure and meaningful life. When the musical reaches its inevitable tragic ending, Maria states, "I can kill now because I now hate."
Ortiz plays Maria with hope and innocent love, purity in its strongest form, and her transformation at the end of the story leaves audience members convicted of the power of hate and the need for love and reconciliation. On top of such wonderful acting, both Ortiz and Lekites project amazing, clear voices. Michelle Aravena and the Shark's ladies also deserve honorable mentions for amazing energy and sass. Aravena conveys strong emotions of passion, hope, sympathy and loss. She and the rest of the Sharks characters tend to make audiences sympathize with the Sharks due to the Jets' evil actions and the Sharks' authentic Spanish dialogue. The Spanish language abounds in this production, sometimes too much. Anyone who does not speak Spanish will have a hard time understanding what's happening during those moments, although the body gestures might help, not to mention the use of a previous production or the film version of the musical as a compass.
Those who have seen previous versions and enjoyed the story and music are the most likely to enjoy the touring cast of "West Side Story." Though the musical boasts amazing leads and fantastic dancing that could get anyone excited, the story may still bore some, as few as they may be. Others may not like the gritty take on the situations and surroundings of the musical - they're isolated moments in the show, but they're enough to bother some. Still, in acting, singing, dancing and overall performance, no one can speak badly about "West Side Story."