Review: Unexpected standouts in simple, spectacular 'West Side Story'

Daily News correspondentJanuary 18, 2014 

PHOTO BY CAROL ROSEGG

  • West Side Story

    When: Showing until Jan. 24
    Where: Atwood Concert Hall
    Tickets: $40-$78 at centertix.net, 263-2787

At the end of "West Side Story," I turned to the person in the seat next to me and asked for her reaction. "The plot was much simpler than I expected," she said.

The story is, in fact, simple: cross "Romeo and Juliet" with 1950s New York. This version, faithfully based on the 2008 Broadway revival, adds some grit and Spanish to the original script. Director David Saint has said that he faced some complaints that showing the revised version would compromise the spirit of the beloved musical, but a performance Thursday night showed such fears to unfounded. The Jets still say "frabba jabba," the gangs still dance-fight with each other, and the moment that Tony and Maria see each other for the first time still makes your heart stop. Classic lines like "from womb to tomb, from sperm to worm" still populate the script. While the updated script makes the gangs scarier and gives the Sharks credibility -- and a secret language -- it appears to have only improved the show.

The crowd delighted in the show's well-known musical numbers, "Something's Coming," "Maria," "Tonight," "America," and "Gee, Officer Krupke." But it wasn't just familiarity that made those songs special. The cast is filled with many triple-threat performers: they can sing, dance and act. All in one body!

Three performers stood out. First, MaryJoanna Grisso, who plays Maria, sings with a moving, chilling depth; when she sings, everything and everyone else on stage seems to disappear.

Second, Michelle Alves, who plays Anita, is the most evocative dancer in the troupe. Alves also subtly but effectively conveys Anita's internal culture clash: Anita is proud of her heritage but wants to assimilate into American culture, and Alves communicated that clearly from her and Grisso's first moments together on stage.

A standout performance, and the one that got the biggest audience response, was Matt Webster's only scene in the entire show. Webster plays Glad Hand, the inept chaperone at the school dance. Glad Hand fails to convince the Jets and Sharks to dance with each other, innocently offends with his attempts to speak Spanglish and repeatedly loses his cool while talking to the Sharks and Jets, all while preaching abstinence. At one point, he yells, simply, "Abstinencia!" That line had no effect on the gang members, but made quite an impression on the crowd.

The dance scene at the high school will not remind you of any school dance you have ever attended. Rather, the crowd gets to watch the show prove its dancing chops: 20 young, athletic professional dancers move in concert to choreographed steps, spins and lifts. Don't go to the bathroom during this scene.

In fact, don't drink any liquids before the show. "West Side Story" might be a simple tale of love, death and culture clashes, but this particular group tells it in spectacular fashion.

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