Review: 'West Side Story'

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The national tour cast of "West Side Story," at the Academy of Music. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Romeo and Juliet, if timeless, is not actually a tale as old as time. You can trace it back pretty far, though, to a 1476 Italian story and through several evolutions until Shakespeare grabbed it for his stage play  around 1595.

That version sticks today — arguably the most popular and well-known love story in the world. As tragic characters and star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet themselves continued to evolve, with their greatest contemporary impact as West Side Story’s Tony and Maria.

The national tour of West Side Story’s 2009 Broadway revival opened at the Academy of Music on Wednesday in a show whose chief quality is its dancing, and  runs through April 8. In a rare pairing — completely by chance — Lantern Theater in Center City has been running a solid, attractive Romeo and Juliet for several weeks, doing well enough to be extended, also through April 8.

So if you’ve a mind to, you can catch R&J in their two most famous settings. That’s what I did Wednesday, when I went to West Side Story’s opening night and Lantern’s Romeo and Juliet several hours earlier. It was a heady day, with an abundance of stage violence born of senseless bigotry and hollow fear.

But it was also a day filled with beauty and grace: Shakespeare’s play blooms with lyrical English that makes you proud to speak a form of the  language, and the gorgeous score of West Side Story, written in 1957 by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, puts the show at the apex of American musicals. Mix  that with the fascination of experiencing  Romeo and Juliet in two distinct settings, 362 years apart, and you’ve got yourself an unusually revealing day.

Still, I wish that the West Side Story national tour offered a cleaner rendition of the musical classic, which pits an American-born gang against a Puerto Rican one, with a lover from each culture complicating everything.  Putting a few of the songs partly in Spanish — an idea carried like a banner by the late Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show’s book and directed the revival — seems pointless, especially for “A Boy Like That,” a pivotal song in the show. (At least the Broadway playbills carried translations; the Kimmel Center playbill provides no such access.)

The revival, like its Broadway version, also lacks chemistry between its lovers — especially disappointing because the Lantern version of Romeo and Juliet is really hot. Why put on the story, in any form, if it’s not about defiant passion in the face of prejudice? (“I would not for the world they saw thee here,” says Juliet, of her family, who hates Romeo’s. “It’s not us,” says a forlorn Maria. “It’s what’s around us.”)

Ross Lekites plays Tony and Evy Ortiz, Maria, and they sing West Side Story in a musical line more suited to opera;  try as they might, there just aren’t enough bubbles in their seltzer  when they’re together. Lekites’ own songs (“Something’s Coming,” “Maria”) come off as masterworks in gilded frames — great for a show of iconic songs from West Side Story, less satisfying for a West Side Story filled with iconic songs.

The two aspects of the show that stood out in the Broadway revival do so here: the big-sound orchestra (led by John O’Neill) and  Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography, a brew of ballet and show dancing reproduced by Joey McKneely.

The huge cast, which includes Michelle Aravena’s Anita and a host of backups from the two gangs, the Jets (New Yorkers) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans), leaps, high-kicks and finger-snaps through the two acts as though dancing were a fact of life on Manhattan’s West Side streets in the ‘50s.

Unlike the 1961 West Side Story movie ending, which went straight for the tear ducts, the stage musical and Shakespeare's play go for the mind. Maria, kneeling at Tony’s body, asks how many enemies a gun can kill “and still have one bullet left for me.” Cries Juliet, cupping her lifeless Romeo’s vial of poison: “Drunk all? And left no friendly drop to help me after?” Each runs toward an unthinkable way out when no one else allows a way in.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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West Side Story: Through April 8 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.

Romeo and Juliet runs through April 8 at Lantern Theater Company, 923 Ludlow St. For more information and The Inquirer review, click on http://is.gd/TcGMH0.

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