How better to describe the opening of “West Side Story,” one of the great moments of musical theater, other than say it still sends shivers up my spine?
From the first notes of Leonard Bernstein’s score, we get a sense, truly, that “Something’s Coming.” It’s the feeling of teetering on the edge, of taking a new and untested — and perhaps dangerous — journey. That feeling gets even stronger with the first moves of the Jets and the Sharks. We feel through Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography the vitality of these young, angry men — the violence and frustration in them, the excess of energy manifested in limbs lifted impossibly high. In another neighborhood, another setting, these taut bodies would represent all that is good about the vigor and confidence of the young. On these rough streets of New York, they symbolize stifled dreams.
Such were my first impressions of the national tour of “West Side Story,” which continues through tonight at the Saroyan Theatre. It’s a pleasure to see a well-staged version. This production doesn’t always capture the tremendous vitality and impact of the classic musical — I was less than wowed by Tony’s vocals — and it sometimes feels a little cramped. But the dancing is first-rate, the production design is nicely conceived for a two-night-stand tour, and the sound very well conceived for the Saroyan.
Standouts in the cast include Michelle Alves as a potent Anita, dancing and singing with a fiery sense of purpose. Andres Acosta makes a smooth and compelling Bernardo, her boyfriend and leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang that forms one-half the battle against the rival Jets. Theo Lencicki, as Riff, the leader of the Jets, is another strong presence.
Though I found her singing very pretty and his acting earnest, I just didn’t warm as much to Maryjoanna Grisso’s Maria and Addison Reid Coe’s Tony as I have to the couple in other productions.
One of the highlights is the amount of Spanish added to the show thanks to the 2009 Broadway revival. (In New York, even more dialogue and lyrics in Spanish were originally part of the revival, but a fair amount of English was substituted midway through the run, presumably because audiences didn’t connect with — gasp — a “foreign” language.) In Fresno, though, the Spanish was greatly appreciated, adding to the authenticity of the experience. (“I Feel Pretty,” sung mostly in Spanish, is a highlight.)
I also liked the dramatic sight in this production of the underbelly of the elevated highway slowly lowering into place — it reminded me of the famous opening shot in “Star Wars” of the huge imperial cruiser lumbering into view — and the effect of the chain-link fence draped in front for the rumble scene.
For me, what this tour did is simply remind me of how great this show is. There are so many fantastic moments: the point in the school dance when the music slows down, and Tony and Maria meet for the first time. The finger-snapping in “Cool.” The symbolism of the Sharks whistling “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when they’re asked to leave Doc’s. The sadness of the first scene of the second act when a buoyant Maria doesn’t know the tragedy that already has befallen her beloved.
But more than anything, this production made me realize that what I truly love in “West Side Story” is the “Somewhere” ballet. The sky shifts to an ethereal bright horizon, and the dancers enter wearing costumes all shades of subtle pastels. The Shark and Jet men and women dance together. What touched me beyond measure in this production was the wide smile on the face of Dan Higgins, the actor who plays Diesel, the strongest (and often surliest) of the Jets. As he danced, he exuded a quiet joy. There was something about that smile that said: There’s a place where all people can dance together. More than 50 years after the premiere of “West Side Story,” we’re still trying to find that place of light.