There are no surprises in the touring production of Leonard Bernstein's fabulous West Side Story, but there fortunately are no disappointments of any importance, either. Baby-boomers are bound to sink into a pleasant pool of nostalgia over this one: Where were you when the 1963 movie version opened across the country? (Me? I was on my very first date, watching the Sharks and Jets at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.) Big, splashy and true to the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, the live show, which premiered on Broadway in 1957, is in many ways a superior product to the film.
The story, of course, is a retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet--itself a retelling of an ancient story of forbidden love and ensuing tragedy. Shakespeare set his story in Verona, in the middle of a horrible feud: A young man falls in love with the daughter of his family's enemy, and the two end up killing themselves--heaven's punishment for their parents' sins of hatred and revenge.
Arthur Laurents's 1950s script moves the story to the streets of Manhattan. Gang war is in full bloom, and a Polish-American boy falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl. Tony is a member of the Jets, Maria the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo. When the young lovers meet at a high school dance and fall madly in love, Bernardo gets physical, Tony's best friend, Riff, leader of the Sharks, sets a date for a rumble, and Maria is carted home to be guarded by suspicious parents.
Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, tries to talk him out of the skirmish, and naive Maria sends Tony to stop the battle altogether, though he has already scaled it back to a fair fight between each gang's best boxer--skin against skin. But since neither gang trusts the other, both groups come equipped to skin their opponent alive. Riff is stabbed by Bernardo, Tony avenges him, and the lovers' fate is sealed.
Despite its dated slang, the Laurents story is still as relevant--and as distressing--as ever. In fact, because this production is so resolutely period, it actually plays like a piece of history--except that the underlying social realities are just the same after 38 years, and a little historical perspective only serves to make those realities all the more appalling. At the bottom of the economic pool, on the mean streets of any large city, young men vie for small pieces of power. The lines aren't necessarily drawn according to race, either. As Riff tells Tony, "Without a gang, you're an orphan."
Of course, West Side Story doesn't do drugs, which have radically altered life in the inner city since the play was first produced. Yet the need for purpose, family and new ways for young men to blow off steam is absolutely the same. The quaint language, the finger-snapping and the gutsy period dancing--part ballet, part jive--don't undermine the message; neither do the period lyrics by Stephen "Daddy-O" Sondheim. Shakespeare's essential insight about pointless hatred and vengeance remains right on.
The best thing about the production, besides Bernstein's brilliant score, is Natascia A. Diaz as Anita. She is as powerful and lovely a presence as even the great Rita Moreno. She may be small of stature, but not even the huge space at the Buell can swallow her up. She moves like satin on glass, and every single gesture is perfect, every nuance of voice lively and real.
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Christian Borle is a terrific dancer, but his Riff never quite persuades us that Tony would kill for him--he has neither the voice nor the acting skills to make us believe he could inspire such devotion. Ben Saypol, however, is a most appealing Tony. A good, strong voice, an appropriately innocent face and an ability to project adoring love make him right for the part--and for Sharen Camille's tender, graceful Maria. Kevin Albert as Bernardo rounds out the principal cast with an elegant sensuality; he and Anita make sparks fly.
The set design by Campbell Baird is clever and visually exciting without ever seeming to trap the performers in a cage. And the fabulous dancing around that fine set--all to Bernstein's rich, complex music--gets the blood pumping. But beware: Memories of their errant youth may come flooding back to haunt unsuspecting boomers for days afterward. I can still see the look on my father's face when I came home at one in the morning.
West Side Story, through October 6 at the Temple Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.