I freely admit it. Before Thursday night, I’d never seen “West Side Story.”
Not the 1961 film. Never a stage production of the 1957 American musical classic.
So when I took my seat at the INB Performing Arts Center for opening night of the play’s four-day run, I had no expectations.
When the curtain opened and the jazzy Leonard Bernstein music began emanating from the orchestra pit, I nearly started snapping my fingers to the beat.
The story is so pervasive that even a newbie knows the broad strokes. It’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1950s New York City, where rival gangs of Puerto Rican and Polish-American teens battle over turf. A Puerto Rican girl, Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso), and Tony (Addison Reid Coe) spy each other across a crowded room at a neighborhood dance. Romance sparks despite the fact that Maria has been promised to Chino, a member of her brother Bernardo’s street gang, the Sharks. Tony, meanwhile, is trying to break free of the Jets, the gang he formed with his best friend Riff. Maria and Tony’s love brings the tensions between the gangs from a simmer to a boil, with deadly consequences.
When we first meet Tony, he’s working at the neighborhood drugstore, Doc’s, and dreaming of a different life. In his first solo, “Something’s Coming,” Coe seemed wobbly, but he found his footing by the time he and Maria teamed up for a lovely “Tonight.”
As Maria, Grisso has a lovely soprano put on fine display in “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Both young actors have expressive faces and good energy and they serve the story well.
They are, however, completely upstaged by Michelle Alves as Anita. Alves, who was born in Puerto Rico, gives a performance that is steeped in the past. It’s as if she’s channeling Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, the two women who played Anita to acclaim on stage and in the film. She has an effortless vocal style and fiery dance moves. She’s all quick steps and swishing skirts during the high-energy numbers “Dance at the Gym” and “America” and brings strong emotion to the heart-wrenching “A Boy Like That” / “I Have a Love.” She got the loudest applause from the audience Thursday, with good reason.
As a whole, this production of “West Side Story” is well done. The sets are cool – especially the scene under the freeway, where the Jets and the Sharks face off for the ill-fated rumble that closes out Act I.
Bernstein’s music is performed by a top-notch orchestra directed by J. Michael Duff. It’s jazzy and cool and fun to listen to.
The cast is strong, with solid performances all around, especially on Thursday by understudies Jeff M. Smith as Riff and Erika Hebron as Anybodys, Andrés Acosta as Bernardo and Carolina Sanchez as Rosalia. And the dancing looks sharp.
Modern audiences may cringe to hear racial epithets tossed about so casually. I don’t doubt those words and sentiments are a product of their time. When Doc (Greg London) expresses his disgust with the Jets for an attack on Anita, he says, “You make the world a lousy place.” Action, one of the Jets, replies, “That’s how we found it.”