The Overture Center’s performance of West Side Story brought new life to the token Broadway show.
The classic story begins in Manhattan circa the 1950s—when immigration and racism were running amuck, making it very difficult for new citizens to adjust to the American life. The Sharks, a group made up of Puerto Rican immigrants living in the Upper West Side of the city, are constantly at war with the Jets, a group of American-born young men with a taste for violence if it means victory. The two gangs spend much of their time battling with each other over the right to their block of street. The Jets are extremely racist toward the Sharks, constantly picking fights to prove that they are superior citizens because of their nationality.
The tables are turned when Maria, a new member of Puerto Rican family living in New York City, sets eyes upon Tony, a retired member of the Jets who wants peace between the groups. They fall in love at first sight, causing a ruckus between their groups. The Jets, deciding to end the war once and for all, challenge the Sharks to a rumble underneath the highway. Upon hearing news of the rumble, Tony and Maria plan to run away from their city lives and live in the country. Tony goes to the bridge to clear the air between the gangs and prevent a fight, but ends up killing the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo, who is also Maria’s brother, in exchange for his murder of the Sharks’ leader, Riff. The story plays out as expected with Maria’s family abandoning her for being with Tony and an extraneous member of the Sharks killing Tony in cold blood for his actions. This modern-day Romeo and Juliet style storyline ends in tragedy, but the musical numbers and acting far outweigh the sadness brought along by the finale.
One concept that stood out throughout the show was the enthusiasm of the actors. Whether killing, joking or falling in love, the energy of every participant reached into the audience and commanded attention. Since this show is one of the most well known works of theater in history, it can be hard to make original. The liveliness of the cast helped to keep the attention of the crowd, as well as giving a full range of appropriate emotions in each scene. Another huge aspect of West Side Story involves the authenticity of the characters. Puerto Rican attitudes and accents are required for the show and the cast fully pulled through. The Spanish woven in throughout the show with strong Puerto Rican accents created a great sense of authenticity that can make or break the productions of the musical. The entire show was full of dynamic performances and passionate characters, which really helped to bring it to life.
The classic songs in this show are sure to bring about some good memories and nearly every song was on point thanks to the fantastic cast. One character who nearly stole the entire production was Anita, performed by Michelle Alves. Conveniently, Alves was born and raised in Puerto Rico, so her level of authenticity far bypassed that of some other characters. Along with that, her stage presence demanded attention, rightfully so. With a powerful voice and impressive dance skills, Anita became an even more prominent character than intended.
The ensemble members who portrayed the two gangs brought an incredible dance factor to the show that is necessary for this specific production. Rather than going for a normal opening song or monologue, West Side Story opens with an intense dance number that sets the menacing tone for the story. The “Prologue” was extremely well performed and nearly perfected aside from a few slight mishaps.
On a more unfortunate note, Tony, portrayed by Addison Reid Coe, was a bit of a letdown. In theater, there is a level of overstatement that is appropriate and it seemed that Coe pushed the boundary too far. His over excitement ruined some of the most famous scenes because one can’t help but laugh at the ridiculous over exaggeration. Maria, performed by Mary Joanna Grisso, on the other hand, had a heavenly voice with the acting talent to match it.
West Side Story is one of the most classic tales still being performed on stages across the country. This production is lively, entertaining and a must-see for all who care about the basics of musical theater and passion toward the art of theater.