Any new production of West Side Story has to stand up to the dozens of high-school productions we've seen over the decades, as well as our communal memory of the movie and intimate knowledge of the score: Sing the first phrase of "Tonight" or "Maria" or "I Feel Pretty" to anyone you know, and they'll almost certainly start humming the rest. But as familiar as it is now, when the show first came out in 1957, the world was amazed by the sheer audacity of the concept. Setting Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in New York, with the Houses of Montague and Capulet represented by street gangs — the white-boy Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks? Making a musical of a classical tragedy? Not to mention showing the denizens of New York's mean streets — particularly Spanish-speaking immigrants — as sympathetic characters? Beyond the pale, huffed some traditionalists. Sheer brilliance, exulted others. The four breathtaking talents who collaborated on the project — composer Leonard Bernstein, temperamental choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents and an up-and-coming musician named Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics — weren't the household names they are now. But although the music and choreography are deathless, the plot has become a little dated. By today's standards, the original gangbangers are cuddly teddy bears. And in a world where the killing of immigrants by roving bands of teenage thugs makes regular headlines, the sentimental liberalism of the 1950s looks blind and foolish.
A few years ago, Laurents — then in his nineties (he died this past spring) — decided to update his masterpiece. This new version debuted in New York in 2009, with reviews ranging from positive to ecstatic, and it's now playing in Denver. Some of the worn-out phrases have been eliminated; choreographer Joey McKneely worked with the dance numbers, keeping them true to Robbins's vision while making them harder-edged; and the Sharks speak some of their dialogue in Spanish, a device that adds a little grit and brings more focus to the idea of exile and immigration. Anita, for example, determined to Americanize, tells her boyfriend Bernardo's sister, Maria, who has just come from Puerto Rico, to speak English in their early scenes together. But after Bernardo's death at the hands of Maria's new love, Tony, she needs Spanish to express her grief. The mix of languages is particularly effective during the powerful "Tonight" quintet.
The gang members are funkier and more menacing. Dear old Officer Krupke turns out to be as casual in his use of violence as some of the tear-gassing, taser-deploying brutes we've seen on video taking down Occupy sites. When the Jets sing "Gee, Officer Krupke," it isn't to his face, and though the song remains funny, it's angrily and bitterly so. In the scene where Anita attempts to warn Tony that Chino intends to kill him, the Jets don't just jeer at her, they come dangerously close to committing gang rape.
West Side Story
West Side StoryPresented by Denver Center Attractions through January 1, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
These innovations don't completely modernize the show: Tony's idea that he can persuade everyone to shrink their huge planned rumble down to a harmless fistfight is absurdly naive in any modern context. But they do remove obvious distractions and make the action feel timeless and universal, a synthesis of past and present. Of course what we're seeing is a fantasy. The fights are danced; people's feelings are sung. That's the nature of art.
The dancing here is first-rate, the acting serviceable or better. Ross Lekites brings a fine tenor to the role of Tony, and Evy Ortiz sings beautifully as Maria, though both are almost brought a cropper several times by a creaky sound system. The role of Anita is usually a scene-stealer, and Michelle Aravena upholds the tradition, stealing almost every scene she's in with her springy, graceful moves and spitfire energy. I also couldn't help noticing lovely Gizel Jimenez among the Shark girls surrounding her.
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But, oh, that sound system! The music on the night I attended was often distorted and unbalanced, the orchestra threatening to drown out the singers, the singers sounding harsh and flat whenever they got loud or hit a high note. Perhaps the problem isn't the system, though, but the direction. Every now and then a show lands at the Buell sounding fantastic: The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific. Was it that the producers of those musicals were more meticulous? Did they allow more time for setting up the tech? Bernstein's music for West Side Story is some of the most beautiful and expressive ever composed. It's a crime to give it a less than crystalline delivery.