by Ellen Burkhardt
It’s a story that could be told about any city, anywhere, at any time: Two ethnically divided groups fighting over pride, property, bragging rights, and power; their actions motivated by fear, insecurity, and hatred.
“West Side Story” opened at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts on Thursday, April 7, with more energy and relevance than might be expected from a 60-year-old musical. But the classic “Romeo and Juliet” retelling, set in 1950s’ Hell’s Kitchen New York and centered around a turf war between a gang of Puerto Rican teenagers and a gang of white teenagers, remains as piercingly timely today as it did when it debuted on Broadway in 1957.
In the musical, recently arrived Puerto Rican immigrants are seen as threats by the more established (but still recently new-to-America) Polish, Irish, and other European immigrants, who think, in order to hang on to “the good old days,” the newcomers have to be put in their place—or worse. Add in a love tangle between a Puerto Rican girl and a Polish boy, and you’ve got yourself a tragedy waiting to happen.
Original director Jerome Robbins wanted his modern musical version of Shakespeare’s age-old tale to revolve around young lovers from the Catholic “Jets” and Jewish “Emeralds,” and for the drama to be set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during Easter and Passover; the show’s original title was “East Side Story.” While that particular storyline never panned out, it just shows how relevant the plot is, and how easily it can apply to myriad circumstances around the globe—present-day, historically, and, unfortunately, in the future.
Director Bob Richard’s Ordway production of this challenging musical—composed by Leonard Bernstein, written by Arthur Laurents, and with music by Stephen Sondheim—is ambitious on all levels. Everything from the subject matter to the time signatures to the keys (and frequent key changes) of the songs stretches the limits of the actors, orchestra, and audience.
The choreography (by Diane Laurenson) follows Robbins’ blueprint (he also choreographed the original Broadway production), and involves near-constant dancing, movement, and rhythm. Fight scenes involve tumbling, jumping, tossing, and acrobatics. The scenic, lighting, and sound design (by James Youmans, Karin Olson, and Andy Horka, respectively) must work in unison to create intimate, expansive, inviting, and dangerous spaces as needed. There’s a lot happening all the time, leaving plenty of room for missteps and awkward moments. But instead of tripping up the cast and musicians, the elements all come together and the result is the rare musical that moves its viewers on a level deeper than mere entertainment.
Even with a stellar behind-the-scenes team, for this show to truly shine it needs lead actors who can carry its difficult, iconic songs, and emotions with apparent ease. It found that talent in local theater star Tyler Michaels (Tony) and Evy Ortiz (Maria), who comes to Minnesota following her international tour with the National Broadway Tour of the show. Individually, Michaels and Ortiz sing with such passion and pitch-perfection that you feel you could listen to them forever; together, their voices meld into emotion-driven duets so moving you feel as if you’re the one falling in love for the first time.
As almost always happens with a live orchestra (which is such a treat, by the way, especially with this production), moments will arise when the singing and music doesn’t quite match up, but Michaels and Ortiz always found their way back to the beat almost immediately, minimizing those few misses into tiny hiccups within their otherwise outstanding performances.
Of course, a musical, like a team, is only as strong as its weakest link, and in this case, there are none. There are a number of stand-out actors who match Michaels and Ortiz in talent and energy. Desiree Davar’s portrayal of Anita is as fierce and gripping as Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning 1961 performance, at once sensual, sensitive, and powerful. Tyler John Logan (Riff) and Alexander Gil Cruz (Bernardo) lead their respective gangs with strong vocals, acting, and dancing.
The same praises can be sung for the men who fill out the Jets and Sharks gangs and the women associated with the two groups. When the Puerto Rican women take over the rooftop to sing “America,” it seemed the opening-night audience would have been satisfied to watch their bright jewel-toned dresses swirl and swish to the fast-paced music the rest of the night (although unfortunately a technical problem with the audio made it difficult to understand the lyrics some of the time).
To fill out the roles of the Sharks gang and the Sharks Girls, the Ordway partnered with Teatro del Pueblo, a professional Latino theatre company located in the West Side of St. Paul. The Teatro del Pueblo talent blended seamlessly with the rest of the cast and added a necessary level of authenticity to the production, making it that much more impactful, especially in light of the heightened racial tensions within local, national, and international communities right now.
That tension was especially felt during the second act during the dream/ballet sequence. In the scene, Tony and Maria imagine a world in which their two communities could live in unity as they so desperately long to do. The lighting, choreography, energy, and emotion present on stage during the ensemble-wide song brought that hope to life, if only long enough to forget about reality for a moment.
It’s not often a musical can retain relevancy over the decades and still be as thought-provoking and entertaining as when it first debuted. “West Side Story” is one such musical; this production of it is especially so.