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Revived "West Side Story" keeps the love, ramps up the danger through the power of dance


FORT MYERS — Music. Movement. Mystery. Mayhem and romance. "Something's Coming." And that something happens to be "West Side Story," which dances into the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers on Feb. 8.

The show, a re-imagining of "Romeo and Juliet" set in New York City, features two warring street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Just as in Shakespeare's classic, lovers from the rival factions fall in love. And it doesn't end well here either.

"West Side Story" was notable in that it was one of the first Broadway musicals to tell its story primarily through dance instead of music or lyrics.

Original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins researched gang members in Spanish Harlem and Greenwich Village to create the vivid sequences for the original 1957 Broadway production. He even went to far as to separate actors playing the Jets and the Sharks during rehearsals so that they would bond with the members of their "gang."

Choreographer Joey McKneely, who scored Tony nominations for "The Life" and "Smoky Joe's Cafe," faced the task of reproducing Robbins' work when the show was revived on Broadway in 2009. What does that mean? According to the actor, dancer and choreographer, it just meant adapting the choreography into the vision that director Arthur Laurents had, which takes "West Side Story" out of the 1950s setting.

"We were trying to remove that stigma, that museum quality of the piece," said McKneely, "... to try to get it to reach a new generation without having to look through the prism of the past."

"The changes are subtle," McKneely says. "They make a big difference in order to create more of a violent world from these kids so its not so much 'oh, we're golly, go-lucky kids.' They're killers right away."

Audiences who fell in love with the soaring Jets and leaping Sharks in the 1961 film, which won 10 Academy Awards, won't suddenly find flying fish here. The jetes and full-on leaps remain. At the same time, McKneely wanted the show reflect a grittier, more realistic nature and to make the movement feel more organic and natural.

"As soon as their ballet moves reeked of a ballet dancer, Arthur [revival director Arthur Laurents] always felt like we were pulled out of the story," McKneely said.

McKneely, who studied with Robbins while preparing for the 1989 retrospective show "Jerome Robbins’ Broadway," said that simple changes to the ballet sequences made the positions seem more masculine without losing the feel of the original choreography. Arm positions were changed slightly, open hands became fists and some pirouettes were eliminated.

"I had to look at all the choreography and make sure that it kept an edge," McKneely said.

"West Side Story" opens not with a song or dialogue, but with a stamping, crashing, dance number, a "Prologue" that sets the tone for the entire show. The iconic, rhythmic, pounding, pulsing finger-snapping number features the Jets and the Sharks battling across the stage; there's hate - and they convey that with the almost wordless beauty of dance.

The iconic sequence got a gritty makeover to and convey more of an air of menace (McKneely describes it as "a threatening aspect") to the audience. The finger snapping remains, but the casual playground atmosphere disappears.

"The very beginning of the show is quite different from the original," McKneely said. "Before, it started very musical comedy - a bunch of kids hanging out, snap, they look and they snap, they look and they snap and they all join in together like they're having a good time. Now, we start the show in a very serious stare-down at the audience."

McKneely, who's worked with the show for ten years, says he's watched some parts of "West Side Story" more than 900 times, in rehearsals, choreography sessions and on stage. He doesn't think audiences need to be fans of dance - either modern or classical - to appreciate the show.

"What 'West Side' is able to do is create fans of dance," McKneely said. "People who are not familiar with dance see the power of what choreography can do, the storytelling ... It creates respect from people of the power of dance that they never knew existed."

Although every part of "West Side Story" remains a classic, he tells audiences to look for a few key scenes.

"Always 'America,'" he says without hesitation, of the pulsing, high-energy, island-tinged dance where Anita and the Shark girls extol the virtues of the United States. He also warns audience to be prepared for the "riveting" first act curtain scene - "The Rumble," which includes an on-stage knife-fight.

"What's remarkable about it ["The Rumble"] is that it's all choreographed, but it looks real," McKneely said. "And it feels dangerous. And I think that's one of the most exciting parts of the show."

"West Side Story" runs Feb. 8-13 in Fort Myers; tickets cost $47 - $82. Bishop Verot High School graduate Alicia Charles will be in the cast as Alicia, one of the Shark Girls.

© 2011 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online
Tags: 2010 national tour, interviews, joey mckneely
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