Review: A winning West Side Story at PPAC

When Tony met Maria
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 27, 2011

STREET SCENE Jumping for joy in West Side Story.

Regarding Shakespearean tragedies, it's hard to think of another Broadway adaptation that could earn the box office appeal that this musical drew out of Romeo and Juliet. Maybe Hamlet! could involve an indecisive, bumbling Wall Street commodities trader, but that's about it.

Which isn't to be cynical about West Side Story, which is touring in an energetic production at the Providence Performing Arts Center through May 1 .

Just realistic. After all, if the heart and soul of the most iconic romance in English literature is transplanted intact, kudos to the surgeon. In this case, there was a team of three. The script was by Arthur Laurents, who didn't go on to pen anything more memorable than Gypsy, but he directed the 2009 revival and this touring production. Composer Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, had already written the music for the 1944 classic On the Town. And the lyricist was Stephen Sondheim, who holds the record for Tony Awards in his category (eight). The choreography, by turns vigorous and lyrical, was by Jerome Robbins, the originator and organizer of the project, whose early career was in ballet.

The 1957 Broadway production was almost called East Side Story. The central conflict would have been about an Italian-American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors, and would have taken place during the time of Easter and Passover. Not to be.

The set-up is pretty simple. One rival gang is the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (German Santiago, nicely balancing iron and irony). The other is the Jets, whose parents may also be immigrants but have been here a little longer. They are led by Riff (Joseph J. Simeone, who lacks a convincing command presence). Their dispute is age-old, over turf, which has always scaled so well, from national borders down to neighborhoods. Bernardo's sister is newly arrived Maria (Ali Ewoldt), who works in a bridal shop with Anita (Michelle Aravena), Bernardo's girlfriend. She and Tony (Kyle Harris) meet at a neutral-territory dance, and, well, you know. Maria forgets all about the mild-mannered Chino (Jay Garcia) whom her parents have sent her to marry, and Tony forgets that ethnic rivalry can lead to violence. Two bodies litter the stage at the Act One curtain.

West Side Story lives or dies on the chemistry between Maria and Tony. It's believable here, but mainly because pretty boy-meets-pretty girl is always believable. Lost is the poignancy that is usually the basis of their relationship, because while Harris's Tony is touchingly awed when they meet, Ewoldt's Maria isn't — classier than a bar pick-up, lower voltage than being thunderstruck. Both voices accomplish the operatic range of the demanding score, especially his ethereal, soaring high notes in "Maria."

Such songs, many of which are now musical classics — the giddy "I Feel Pretty" and the wistful "Somewhere." Such choreography — vitality maintained with robust movements of expansion and contraction, like breath itself.

Affectingly directed and choreographed set pieces keep emotions ebbing and flowing. In "Dance At the Gym," the Sharks and Jets take turns trying to out-do each other, engaging in a hyper-energized mambo. In "Somewhere," the tomboy Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger) leads a gentle dream-like sequence where gang members as well as Tony and Maria seek "a place for us."

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