BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Jerome Robbins was a difficult man. The director-choreographer of West Side Story was "the perfectionist . . . who destroys you,'' said Larry Kert, who originated the role of Tony in the 1957 Broadway production.
Fortunately for Joey McKneely, he danced for Robbins when the five-time Tony Award winner was in his 70s and had mellowed. In 1989, McKneely was in his early 20s and the youngest dancer in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a compilation of his greatest hits.
"I was the baby of the company,'' McKneely said. "I could do no wrong. He was never really hard on me. It was really a master class experience.''
Some two decades later, McKneely applied the lessons he learned from Robbins, who died in 1998, to reproduce his choreography for a Broadway revival of West Side Story. The tour arrives Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Robbins' choreography was revolutionary, bringing ballet to the Romeo and Juliet story set amid the teenage gang warfare of Manhattan's West Side. His mambo and cha-cha combinations are holy writ to musical theater. There is even a West Side Story choreographic manual.
"I only use it as a reference guide,'' said McKneely, who played a Jet in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. "I already knew the choreography in my body, because I learned it from him. My interpretation of the choreography is pretty much as I danced it, not as I read about it.''
This revival of West Side Story was directed by Arthur Laurents, the playwright who collaborated on the legendary original production with Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Laurents, still a feisty presence at 93 years old, wanted to shake off the dust that had accumulated through the years. For one thing, he incorporated Spanish into quite a lot of the dialogue and song lyrics by the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, including Me Siento Hermosa (I Feel Pretty) and Un Hombre Así (A Boy Like That). But some of the Spanish was changed back to English on Broadway and for the tour.
"There's still some Spanish, but less than in New York,'' McKneely said. "Unfortunately, it alienated the audience a little bit too much.'' David Saint directed Laurents' production for the road.
Another goal of Laurents' was to toughen up West Side Story. In his 2009 memoir, On Directing, he said that in too many productions the Jets and Sharks come across like musical comedy chorus boys and not authentic gang members.
"One of Arthur's points about the show was that it looked too balletic,'' McKneely said. "He wanted these gang members to reflect society a little bit more. They are violent. They are capable of murder. The hatred is visceral. We were able to add more edge to the ballet line.''
McKneeley, who has directed West Side Story around the world for 10 years, said that dancers today are better trained than those who performed the show in the 1950s. "In terms of choreography, I'm able to stretch the bodies a little longer. I'm able to have them jump and hang in the air a little longer. I'm able to have them kick a little higher.''
For the tour, he cast a mix of actors and dancers. "I'm a stickler for technique,'' he said. "So I will reach into the ballet world. Unfortunately, they don't sing and act all the time. I'll have a slot or two for a ballet person, and then a slot or two for an actor who moves well. My job is to hide it so you'd never see who's better than the other person.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.