I approached "West Side Story" with some trepidation Tuesday night. This national tour, which landed at the Orpheum in Minneapolis, is based on a Broadway revival directed by the late Arthur Laurents in 2009. Laurents, of course, wrote the original script and forever deserves his place in the American theater pantheon.
But Laurents was 90 when he staged his "West Side Story," and the show felt at least that old when I saw it on Broadway. Jiminy Christmas, what a long, turgid night.
However. At some point after the show left Broadway and hit the road, director David Saint shook out the lethargy and injected a new sense of purpose into what is still one of the finest musicals in the canon.
Choreographer Joey McNeely's dancers move with energy (though not always in synch) and we enjoy a brisk retelling of Tony and Maria's tragic love, mistrust and the cycle of violence that produces hate. Conductor John O'Neill has bought into this refreshing program, too, with an orchestra that hits the Bernstein score with urgency; Scenically, the set articulates the urban architecture Bernstein's music evokes, and the production uses color and light well in complementing every accent.
The only substantial quibble is that this is not the best-sung "West Side." A conscious (and quite defensible) choice was made to favor operatic heft rather than youthful purity in the voices, particularly with Kyle Harris's Tony and Ali Ewoldt's Maria. When the emotional moment demands power, they deliver; however, "West Side" seems best defined by innocence and a fragile faith in the future. A favorite moment is the dress-shop scene in which the two lovers playfully act out their imagined wedding like kids in dress-up clothes. This episode of almost unbearable vulnerability doesn't translate as Harris and Ewoldt sing "One Hand, One Heart."
Michelle Aravena's Anita leads a snap, crackling rendition of "America," and the Jets ensemble does really fine work with "Officer Krupke," Stephen Sondheim's brilliant lyrical satire on the causes of juvenile delinquency. Alexandra Frohlinger, as Anybodys, sparkles with "Somewhere" -- a marvelous, dreamy ballad that feels so much a piece of the flower-child 1960's rather than the play's 50's urban grit.
Much ink has been spilled over the use of Spanish for some of the play's dialogue -- a means of layering realism into the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girls. Setting aside the legitimate question of how much room there is for realism in a script laden with "Daddy-os" and "Buddy Boys," the device works as a means of highlighting separation. It both marks the Puerto Ricans as "other," and gives them a sense of collegiality.
Perhaps more powerful in terms of relevancy, "West Side Story" reminds us how quickly we learn violence. Forgiveness and coexistence rarely have seemed so necessary as they are today and yet, Maria spits this epithet at both Sharks and Jets as she stands over her fallen lover at play's end: "I can kill now, because I hate now." What's more, we absolutely sympathize with her.
How satisfying to see that this great musical can benefit from a brisk shake and rediscover its purpose.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299