It's hard to remember in these days of gritty, tragic Broadway musicals like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Miss Saigon that West Side Story was a near-revolutionary Broadway musical when it debuted in 1957.
Up until then, musicals were mostly light-hearted and light-plotted, with colorful characters and plenty of chuckles, if not belly laughs.
West Side Story is bright-spirited, but not light-hearted. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it is a modern tale of star-crossed lovers from warring families. Its plot is multilayered and complex.
In Romeo and Juliet, the warring families are Italian nobility. In West Side Story, the lovers come from two rival New York gangs: Tony, a native-born American of Polish descent, and Maria, a newly-arrived Puerto Rican girl.
Tony, who was once the leader of the Jets, is trying to keep out of the ongoing battles between the gangs. He becomes even more determined to keep peace after he meets Maria at a high school dance and falls in love with her.
As bad luck would have it, Tony accidentally kills Maria's brother Bernardo, who leads the Sharks, while trying to break up a fight. The hostility escalates and the blossoming love between Tony and Maria becomes impossible.
The story, of course, ends in tragedy after a series of badly-timed misunderstandings.
But not before the audience enjoys some of the best and most touching music and lyrics ever written for Broadway: the romantic Maria and Tonight, the snappy America, the whimsically flirtatious I Feel Pretty, and the tragic and wistful Somewhere.
The real breakthrough the show made, though, was the dramatic choreography by Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro, which melted into the story and burst from it at the same time.
The show is a real challenge for dancers, singers and, perhaps most of all, directors, who must put story, song and dance together.
For the challenging roles of Maria and Tony, director Jimmy Ferraro chose 15-year-old Brenda Grau, an honor student at Central High School in Brooksvile in her first lead role, and stage veteran Gully Shell, who has performed a number of roles at Walt Disney World, Capone's Dinner & Show and his alma mater, the University of Central Florida, where he was elected Mr. UCF in 1996. Shell is also musical director for the show.
"Brenda is a gem, a diamond, a real find," Ferraro said of his young star. "She is lovely, and she takes direction so well. I'm very excited we found her for this show."
Randi Hoidalen, who played lead in South Pacific at the Palace and has appeared in several other Tampa Bay area shows, also praises Miss Grau.
"She really has the best voice I've heard in this area," Ms. Hoidalen said.
Manny Parenti, who was Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and Billis in South Pacific at the Palace and a former HAMI winner for his role in Brigadoon at Stage West Community Playhouse, plays Riff, the leader of the Jets.
Michael Serrano, who is performing in Carmen and Wagner as part of a touring company in schools and has been in show choirs in several cities, plays Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks and Maria's brother.
Christine Curtin, who has played in or choreographed several Palace shows and has won acting awards at Richey Suncoast Theatre, plays Maria's best friend, Anita.
Others in the Jets are Aaron J. Wooten, John Ingargiola, Tom Mellaccio, Troy LaFon, Adrienne Phillips, Kim Endonino, Lynn Regan, Sara DelBeato and Tiffany Fisera.
Members of the Sharks are played by Charlie Real, Tony Martinez, Joe Mancino, Frank Elia, Brandi Kulesa, Katie McGuigan, Chelle St. Pierre and Debra L. Snyder.
Ms. St. Pierre is also choreographer.
Adults roles in the show are played by Paul Grassi as Doc; Steve Rossi as Lt. Schrank; Mark Giuliano as Officer Krupke and Mancino as Glad Hand.