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Did the best 'West Side Story' ever just premiere in Queens?

by Christopher Kelly

Forget how many times you've seen "West Side Story" over the years. You've never seen a production like the one mounted by Carnegie Hall last weekend at the Knockdown Center, a former warehouse converted into an arts center in Queens.

This "West Side Story" featured professional actors in the lead parts, including Skylar Astin ("Pitch Perfect") as Tony and newcomer Morgan Hernandez as Maria; 14 New York City high school students in the ensemble; 200 more high schoolers in the chorus; and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra director Marin Alsop conducting the orchestra.

If this sounds like a recipe for potential chaos, think again. ...The students meshed beautifully with the professionals, making for an electric, unpredictable atmosphere. Alsop approached Leonard Bernstein's peerless score with brio and playfulness. The only fault with this production — the culmination of Carnegie Hall's season-long "Somewhere Project," a "citywide exploration of "West Side Story" — is that there were only three performances, all of which were sold out.

Here's what you missed: Directed by Amanda Dehnert, the tale of star-crossed lovers and gang warfare unfolded on a mostly bare stage that resembled a very long fashion show catwalk, around which audience members sat at tables or on risers. The performers, dressed in modern day clothes (with splashes of red for the Jets and purple for the Sharks), seemed to spill out from every direction of the room, sometimes singing from within the audience.

The production mostly employed Jerome Robbins' original choreography (with some additions by Sean Cheesman), and the dancers took very beautiful advantage of the long stage. At least two of the iconic numbers from the show, "Something's Coming" (performed here by Astin) and "America" (with an excellent Bianca Marroquín as Anita), were sung better than I've ever heard them before.

What came through the most about this production, though, was its youthfulness and intensity — this is what it looks like for a new generation to lay claim to a classic. The colorblind casting — the Jets weren't just white; the Sharks not just Latino — felt especially suited to our racially jumbled-together modern New York. The student chorus (employed judiciously, but unforgettably, on "Somewhere" and in the finale) served as a reminder that "West Side Story" is, at its core, a tale of young people struggling to find their voices.

The question now is why don't New Jersey professional companies take a cue from Carnegie Hall and attempt something similar — a dazzling melding of professional and student, classical and cutting-edge?

West Side Story

March 4 - 6

Knockdown Center

52-19 Flushing Ave, Queens

Christopher Kelly may be reached at ckelly@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @chriskelly74.

http://www.nj.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2016/03/did_the_best_west_side_story_ever_just_premiere_in.html

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