This national tour is probably not the West Side Story of your dreams. That may be impossible to achieve, given the challenges of a show that requires its cast to move like ballet dancers, sing like opera stars and act like New York street kids. But the production that opened Tuesday night at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts gets enough right that it provides a respectable experience of what has to be considered the great American musical. Here are a few thoughts from my notebook:
Athletic dancing: What makes this West Side Story work — what makes any staging of it work — is the great Jerome Robbins choreography for the Jets and Sharks, which gets going right away in the finger-snapping Prologue, with its exuberant ballet leaps under a street light. Choreographer Joey McKneely, who once played a Jet, reproduced Robbins' mambo and cha-cha combinations for iconic numbers like Dance at the Gym. The Jets' jive ballet to Cool is a highlight.
Star-crossed lovers: West Side Story has never really been about stars. Who remembers who played Tony opposite Natalie Wood's Maria in the 1961 movie? (It was Richard Beymer.) Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt are the leads here, and they are maddeningly inconsistent in their singing. In Maria, Harris is suitably ardent as the dreamy Jet, while Ewoldt is overmatched in their duet, Tonight. Then she recovers nicely in One Hand, One Heart, and he sounds bad. Ewoldt's I Feel Pretty verges on screeching. There is strong chemistry between the pair, obvious in the scene when Harris clambers up the balcony to enfold Ewoldt in a passionate, tender embrace.
Second leads: As is often the case in West Side Story productions, the actors playing Anita (Michelle Aravena) and her Shark boyfriend, Bernardo (German Santiago) steal the show. Love their purple outfits. Sarasota's Drew Foster played Jets gang leader Riff on Tuesday.
Se habla Espanol: Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed this revival on Broadway, had the bright idea to incorporate Spanish into the Sharks' dialogue and lyrics. For the tour, directed by David Saint, some Spanish has been restored to English — notably in I Feel Pretty (Me Siento Hermosa) and A Boy Like That (Un Hombre Asi) — but there is still a lot of the Puerto Rican gang's scenes that will be incomprehensible to English speakers not familiar with the show. Authenticity is cool, but so is understandability, and the Spanish could have been more deftly (and more sparingly) done.
Mozart in Manhattan: Leonard Bernstein's brilliant score is positively operatic in the Act 1 quintet of Tonight, clearly inspired by similar ensembles in Mozart masterpieces such as The Marriage of Figaro. John O'Neill conducts a crack orchestra, featuring an arsenal of percussion (drum kit, xylophone, vibes, bongos, timpani, cymbals, wood blocks — they've got it all in the pit).
Sondheim's favorite lyric: Gee, Officer Krupke is a conventional musical comedy number, but it did allow lyricist Stephen Sondheim (with help from Bernstein) to come up with: "Krup you!"
Somewhere: West Side Story succeeds when it gives the effect of being its own little world, and despite some problematic performances, I had that experience with this production, thanks to the excellent design of scenery (James Youmans), lighting (Howell Binkley) and costumes (David C. Woolard). The Act 2 Somewhere dream ballet is hauntingly beautiful. And let's not forget Romeo and Juliet. Looming over the drama is the tragic inevitability that before it is over, Riff (Mercutio in Shakespeare's play), Bernardo (Paris) and Tony (Romeo) will all be lying dead onstage.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.