At its core, West Side Story is another iteration of a timeless tale about love doomed by ignorant and irrational hatred.
William Shakespeare wrote about it in the late 16th century in Romeo and Juliet, and other versions preceded it. The saddest thing is no one ever quite gets the point because you could take this story and plop it in the midst of numerous warring groups today, and it would make sense.
In the late 1950s, the trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and a writer Arthur Laurents set it among warring white and Puerto Rican gangs. The unfortunate thing about the touring production that opened at the Lexington Opera House Friday night for a three day run is it felt more like a museum piece than a vibrant story.
Quite a bit has been made about how this production, based on the 2009 Broadway revival by Laurents, updated the show to make it contemporary. That is primarily in the portrayal of the Puerto Rican characters who are played mostly by actors with Latin-American backgrounds and speak Spanish for significant portions of the show. But the gang life still feels very rooted in the mid-20th century and sanitized for musical theater. If you were concerned this was going to be some kind of Martin Scorsese take on the Sharks and the Jets, rest easy. It’s hard to sound very tough saying, “Daddy-O.”
But what really keeps this production from soaring is another timeless hazard for tales of star-crossed lovers: It’s hard to get too involved with the story if you aren’t sold on the couple.
We aren’t quite sure why Addison Reid Coe’s Tony and Maryjoanna Grisso’s Maria are drawn to each other across the dance floor, and we never really are. The passion that’s supposed to spark two-and-a-half hours of drama really never ignites, and that leaves us hanging on the songs.
Fortunately, West Side Story gives us plenty of great songs and there are some really strong performances in this production, particularly Act I centerpieces America and Cool.
Anita is one of the great show-stealing roles in American musical theater — just ask Rita Moreno — and Michelle Alves makes the most of her opportunity here, particularly with the showcase of America, swinging her skirt around, mugging and leading a great ensemble turn. Of anyone in this show, it would be no surprise if Alves made it to Broadway.
As Riff, Theo Lencicki takes a similarly strong turn in Cool, where the gang leader teaches his Jets how to act. His counterpart with the Sharks, Andres Acosta as Bernardo, is also a compelling stage presence.
But it’s Tony and Maria that must carry the show. Grisso has a beautiful voice and develops some grit before the final curtain. Coe never makes us believe Tony was once a gang leader, and with two big solos, Something’s Coming and Maria, he did not seem to know what to with himself alone on stage.
The Spanish and casting of the Puerto Rican parts certainly strengthened the production, giving the show greater credibility than some versions of West Side Story that have scrimped on cultural authenticity. And there were some thrilling ensemble moments, particularly the Dance at the Gym and the highly stylized fighting of the prologue.
But the lesson of this production is that regardless of how you frame the show, it will rise or fall on its performances and storytelling. Whether it’s R&J or West Side Story, this is not a tale that should leave us dry eyed and indifferent.