Although it's been more than forty years since West Side Story opened on Broadway, the landmark musical still has the power to transport theatergoers to unparalleled heights. Its combination of soaring melodies and frenetic dance sequences makes Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's 1957 show spellbinding in a way that often eludes today's blare-and-stare extravaganzas. Despite being hampered by a few anachronisms and sound-system snafus, the Arvada Center's rousing version proves capable of eliciting an audience's electrified cheers, knowing laughter and, at times, stunned silence.
In fact, it's a sign of the production's success that hushed quiet--not manufactured whoops or even polite applause--follows one of the greatest scenes ever written for the musical theater, a highly stylized sequence in which the star-crossed Tony (Greg Whitney) and Maria (Melissa Fahn) inhabit an idealized world devoid of the suspicion and fear that eventually lay waste to their love. Beautifully staged by director Jeffrey Gallegos (who throughout retains much of Jerome Robbins's incomparable choreography), the Act Two episode swells to a stirring climax during the ballad, "Somewhere," one of several compelling moments in which Bernstein's immortal score merges sublimely with Arthur Laurents's updated version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." As in the signature song, "Tonight," majesty and grandeur join forces with feeling and sentiment in well-sung, well-acted episodes that, fittingly enough, are as pleasing to the senses as they are soothing to the soul.
Likewise for the heartfelt double duet in Act Two between Maria and Anita (Mercedes Perez), the grief-stricken girlfriend of Maria's slain brother, Bernardo (Daniel Guzman). Nailing every note of the syncopated "A Boy Like That," Perez finds Anita's peculiar brand of tender toughness as she sings to her younger compatriot, "Stick to one of your own kind." Fahn answers her with operatic virtuosity, summoning Maria's bottomless desire as she sings of Tony, "I love everything he is." Then the sparkling pair segue into "I Have a Love," artfully blending their voices together as they croon, "When love comes so strong/There is no right or wrong." And both performers lend illuminating artistry to their characters' demanding scenes of spoken dialogue. Perez, for instance, maintains a firm hold on Anita's ultimately calamitous pride during a brutal near-rape scene with members of the rival Jet gang, while Fahn handles Maria's heartrending farewell to the deceased Tony by exuding simple grace and dignified restraint.
Less convincing, however, is Whitney. Though he has little difficulty locating Tony's winning affability, he seems to have trouble tapping into his deeper, more conflicted feelings. To be sure, the handsome actor possesses a clear, expressive singing voice ("Something's Coming" and "Maria") and rises to the occasion during most of Tony's lyrical moments (he and Fahn deliver a lovely version of the sacred-sounding duet, "One Hand, One Heart"). But Whitney also winds up standing around with his thumbs in his pockets for much of the evening and, like most of the ultra-white-sneakered Jets, deports himself as though he'd be more at home shagging golf balls in Scarsdale than duking it out on the mean streets of Manhattan's West Side. He also communicates Tony's love-at-first-sight feelings for Maria by assuming an overly familiar attitude with her from the get-go--an unfortunate choice that results in little or no dramatic tension arising from the circumstances of their relationship.
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The strong supporting cast is led by Guzman's taut, grounded portrait of the hot-blooded Bernardo, who is torn between the ever-present need to protect his family's traditions and the unspoken demand that he conform to the American way. As Bernardo's best friend Chino, Greg Baccarini turns in an understated performance that illustrates the tragic consequences of knowing no other way but violence to right life's wrongs. Mark Devine's portrayal of Riff sometimes boils over into caricature, but he conveys the gang leader's fiercely territorial sense during "Cool."
Overall, the performers underscore the point that West Side Story isn't, as it is sometimes envisioned to be, a show that gives musical expression to the problems of violence, racism or injustice; rather, it's a marvelously realized, carefully crafted drama about the specific human behavior that contributes to larger communal ills. And, as Gallegos and company frequently make clear, it's also an unforgettable work of genius that deservedly holds a vaunted place in the musical theater pantheon.
West Side Story, through August 1 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 303-431-3939.