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On Theater: A dynamic 'West Side Story' revival

September 08, 2011|By Tom Titus

To successfully revive a modern classic musical such as "West Side Story" for the 21st century, you need more than melodic voices and inspired choreography. You need the elusive ingredient of attitude — an "us vs. them" mentality that pervades the production.

Thankfully, all three elements are present in abundance in the current incarnation of the landmark musical now in residence at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The show virtually bubbles over in attitude, establishing a conflict early on that will lead quite naturally to tragic consequences.

As directed initially by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show's original book, and later by David Saint after Laurents' death just four months ago, this touring production throbs with vitality, from the moment the Jets and Sharks taunt each other on the street to the murderous rumble scene which closes the first act and the heart-rending "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired finale.

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The driving force of Leonard Bernstein's musical score, the combative choreography of Jerome Robbins and the pungent lyrics of Stephen Sondheim — in his Broadway debut — set the tone early on, bolstered by one of the strongest casts this show has ever seen.

The shimmering centerpiece is Ali Ewoldt's Maria, the young Puerto Rican beauty recently arrived in America who enters a forbidden romance with Tony, a onetime leader of the Jets, bitter rivals of her brother's gang of Sharks. Ewoldt, who possesses a voice of incredible range and power, also gives her character a savage eroticism rarely glimpsed in the role.

Kyle Harris as Tony is no match vocally for Ewoldt, but his awkward, boyish charm endears him to the audience. Harris scores most notably in the lower-key duet, "One Hand, One Heart," with Ewoldt.

As Riff, the pugnacious leader of the Jets, Joseph J. Simeone commands the stage with his dexterity and athleticism. His street-gang rival, Bernardo, is seethingly well enacted by German Santiago.

The fiery Shark girl Anita, a showcase role, is deliciously delivered by Michelle Aravena, who dominates the taunting "America" number with her buddies and electrifies in her dramatic duet with Maria, "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love."

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