THEATER | Classic “West Side Story” at the Orpheum has something for everyone

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In the world of musical theater, most shows can be divided into one of two groups. Those groups, usually based on the collective strength of the creators and directors of that particular show, are: “singers who dance” (Les Miserables, Sound of Music) and the other, as you might have guessed, is “dancers who sing” (Chicago, Oklahoma!). The June 12th performance of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic West Side Story at the Orpheum Theater succeeded in transcending those categories, showcasing a strong and diversely talented cast chock full of triple threats.

In this physically and emotionally demanding production, directed by Jerome Robbins, the performers really have to be able to do it all: partner and solo dancing in styles ranging from jazz, salsa, ballet, and waltz. Huge, impassioned duets that wax tender about both romantic and familial relationships. Controlled and sensitive musical soliloquies (it is Shakespeare, after all) to bawdy and delightfully sophomoric men’s chorus numbers. Acting in scenes that must convey everything from the blush of an innocent first kiss to what is basically a simulated gang bang. There are a million ways to communicate the terrible cliché that this show, in plot alone, truly does have something for everyone. In fact, my personal emotional tally topped out at: two gasps, one chin tremble, a chortle and a guffaw, at least one swoon, and I’ll admit, even one tear.

But great material can be totally wasted unless there are performers who can convincingly carry it off. Luckily from the moment we meet Tony (played by toothy and tall Kyle Harris, who looks, at least from where I was sitting, like a young Tom Everett Scott in That Thing You Do!) he is every bit the sensitive outsider, ready to meet his destiny in the form of the doe-eyed and dream-filled Maria (played, with an almost passable Puerto Rican accent, by the ethnically indeterminate Ali Ewoldt). The two have to kiss and caress and gaze and grip each other constantly throughout the show and amazingly, it seems fresh. (Note: Harris actually credits himself as an Excellent Stage Kisser in the special skills section of his resume.) Separately, Ewoldt, who has an impressive operatic range but edges on sounding like a saccharine sweet Disney princess for much of the show, and Harris are enjoyable enough but it’s when they sing together that you get that thrilling, if a little cheesy, soaring feeling that musicals are supposed to give you. And no matter how many times you hear “Somewhere” or “One Hand, One Heart” Bernstein’s incredibly complex and wide-ranging score, when delivered honestly, is affecting.

Without a doubt, this production’s standout star is Michelle Aravena, who gives a no-holds-barred performance as the fiery Anita. Her pleading solo in “A Boy Like That”—a song normally regarded as mostly a plot advancer—was the source of my aforementioned chin tremble. Aravena has many memorable moments but showed incredible range in the confrontation scene at Doc’s. Her attention to the physical details of playing a feisty, funny person was pretty incredible for the entire two and a half hour run time.

Other notable performances came from the slick and suave leader of the Sharks, Bernardo, as played by German Santiago and Drew Foster who is all over the place as Action. I get that that’s part of the character and that if they did a production set in the modern age (and I am sure they have done like a hip-hop West SIIIIDE Story version) Action would be re-named ADD. But the second act puts Action is the spotlight and it pays off in a major way. Clue: The very literal choreography in “Gee, Officer Krupke” was the source of one of my gasps and one guffaw.

Admittedly, the show’s ultra long run time might deter unseasoned theatergoers, but the timeless tale told in West Side Story is filled with real tension and delivers raw performances from the well-rounded cast. If that’s not enough to keep you engaged and enthralled, well then at the very least it’s always pretty amazing to see men do high kicks and tour jetes in tight jeans, right?

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.

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