Addie Morales as Maria and Zach Adkins as Tony in West Side Story. Photo by Curtis Brown Photography.
West Side Story is a theatre staple, one that almost everyone has seen at least once, if not multiple times. However, North Carolina Theatre's current production, directed by Eric Woodall and based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, is a new, fresh, and surprisingly modern take on this beloved tale.
And, while this production doesn't overlook the fun and romance that have made so many fall in love with the script, it does focus heavily on some of the show's darker aspects and themes, especially those that are, shockingly, still relevant today, sixty-two years after the story was first conceived.
The story focuses on two rival gangs who battle throughout the Upper West Side of New York City, the show's setting. The Puerto-Rican Sharks and the white Jets are fierce enemies, with the tensions and violence between the two groups growing more intense by the day.
Despite the fraught tension, former Jet Tony (Zach Adkins) falls in ill-fated love at first sight when he meets Maria (Addie Morales) at a school dance. And, despite the fact that Maria happens to be the sister of Bernardo (Stephen Diaz), the Sharks' leader, the young duo is determined to let nothing stand in the way of true love. Unfortunately for them, the rest of their world, with its stark lines and boundaries, doesn't feel the same.
The classic tale is told with beautiful ballet-inspired choreography by Jeremy Dumont, choreography that fills in the gaps of what can't be expressed in words and adds new meaning and depth to the script. Sometimes modern and playful while, at other times, somber and striking, Dumont's choreography never ceases to be a beautiful, perfect accompaniment to this bittersweet story.
The strong choreography is allowed to take front and center not only because of its brilliance, but also because of the minimalistic set, which features only a few necessary set pieces and twinkling lights or "stars" up in the sky, a nice nod to the story's original inspiration, Romeo and Juliet. The costumes are simple too, save for the brilliant effect of having the Sharks dress all in white and the Jets dress all in black.
The gifted cast proves that it doesn't need any big embellishments to get to the heart of the script. Morales brings a charming innocence and a beguiling softness to her characterization of Maria, while Adkins is surprisingly sweet and wonderfully optimistic as Tony. Both actors boast powerhouse voices that make each musical number perfect, though the real vocal standout is Supriya Jaya, who serves as a soloist on "Somewhere," easily the production's most emotionally effective song and scene.
Another major standout is Michelle Alves' Anita. Bossy, brazen, and incredibly likeable, Alves' characterization makes for a very sympathetic Anita, one that the audience will root for and side with through both her happy and more harrowing moments. Estes Tarver creates a gruff and grizzled but realistic Lieutenant Schrank, and Jeffery West delivers the perfect trustworthy, fatherly quality to make his character an effective and reliable voice of reason.
The show's sad- though some would argue it's also hopeful- ending drives the script's themes home by closing with an American flag backdrop, a fit closing for a production that takes a close look at where our country has been and at whether it's currently heading forward or backward.
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