Is there anything that Twin Cities theater phenom Tyler Michaels cannot do? Here, at last, is one: In “West Side Story,” which had its thrilling opening Thursday at Ordway Center, Michaels doesn’t even attempt a New York accent for this “Romeo and Juliet” story about battling Big Apple street gangs.
Otherwise, Michaels holds his own, singing and dancing as the romantic lead Tony opposite Evy Ortiz’s entrancing Maria. These two headliners add to the electricity rippling off the stage from a solid revival of the classic musical, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
In recent years, the Ordway has weaned itself from touring shows and tried to build a reputation as a producer of pizazzy musicals, either by itself or in partnership with other regional companies. Its record is mixed: “The Sound of Music” was a winner in 2015 but last year’s productions of “Paint Your Wagon” and “White Christmas” were competent at best.
Gorgeous, lyrical and timely, “West Side Story” establishes a new benchmark for the Ordway.
The show, by composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents, pits the Jets, a white gang led by Tony’s best friend Riff (Tyler John Logan, a better dancer than singer) against the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican immigrants led by Bernardo (muscular, earthy Alexander Gil Cruz).
Amid the tensions at a community dance, Tony and Bernardo’s sister, Maria, fall for each other. Still, neither their love, nor the police, can stop the bloodletting to come.
This production re-creates the original staging that was conceived, directed and choreographed by theater genius Jerome Robbins. Both director Bob Richard and choreographer Diane Laurenson have connections to Robbins, and their revival, studded with big, arresting dance numbers, finds the throbbing, lusty heart of his inspiration.
Richard and Laurenson have cast performers of varied shapes and sizes for this show, mixing crackerjack Midwestern hoofers with polished New Yorkers, some of whom were in a national tour of “West Side Story.” This inclusive approach is charming and makes the show no less effective.
Ortiz, who played Maria on tour, has excellent command of her character, with phrasing that tends toward the operatic. Michaels’ chops are more firmly anchored in musical theater. They make their vocal differences work while establishing Tony and Maria as two impetuous kids in love.
The standout performers also include Desiree Davar, who is powerfully emotive as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, the role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar for the 1961 film version.
Still, there are a thousand ways this “West Side Story” revival could have gone wrong, and not just because the show is so iconic. Credit is due to the cast, which executed the big dance numbers admirably and carried on despite occasional issues with sound during Thursday’s opening, and to music director Raymond Berg, who crisply led a 19-piece orchestra through Bernstein’s lush and moody score.