Opening Nights: West Side Story

A terrific production of a show with a daunting legacy.

"They're all killers . . . I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story," said book writer Arthur Laurents of the 2009 Broadway revival he directed, now touring through Seattle. Well, maybe. These Jets are nevertheless still frightened by the prospect of rumbling the Sharks with knives or guns, and the euphemisms in Stephen Sondheim's lyrics have remained untouched—"buggin' " hasn't become "fuckin'," for example. The major change Laurents instituted was to have a good chunk of the Puerto Rican characters' dialogue and lyrics translated into Spanish, by In the Heights author Lin-Manuel Miranda, which boosts the show's vividness and realism considerably. (There are no supertitles; Anglos will get the gist, but miss the fine points of Miranda's lyrics—which my bilingual plus-one said were lovely and impressive.)

Let's praise another of Laurents' alterations, an unheralded one: the increased stage time given Anybodys, the Jet wannabe. Usually it's a tiny but interesting and poignant role—at first a magnet for contempt, but later a key player in the tragic events during and after the rumble. In this production, the elfin and energetic Alexandra Frohlinger is seen being kicked out of the Dance at the Gym number by the Jets, but allowed to participate in "Cool." Most movingly, and startlingly, she gets to sing "Somewhere," becoming an idealistic agent of reconciliation in the show's Act 2 dream ballet.

Among the terrific cast, one pleasant surprise is Evy Ortiz's slightly earthier-than-usual Maria (certainly more so than Natalie Wood's spun-sugar Maria in the film version). My only minor complaint is that Ross Lekites seems awfully boyish for Tony—seeming less like a man who's outgrown the Jets than an apprentice who wants in. He has a fine and fluent voice, though, very Mandy Patinkin in timbre. The dance numbers are fantastic—as they must be, or why bother with West Side Story?—with Joey McKneely's choreography honoring but distinctly freshening Jerome Robbins' original. Some touring shows can seem a little mechanistic, especially in their moments of spectacle, but what makes this production really crackle is that the stage is truly full, top to bottom, front to back, of human beings—everyone a character, everyone alive, everyone believable and making an impact even in a show with such a daunting, legendary legacy.

 
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