The front-of-house curtain at the Cobb Energy Center looks like an old, gray wall with graffiti scrawled across it: not the beautifully-done, colorful, artistic graffiti of today, but letters scratched in desperation in a part of New York City that is devoid of hope. The curtain rises, and 7 young men from the Jets gang are in our faces, dancing with barely-restrained power, hiding their anger and frustration with lives that stretch endlessly ahead of them in an unbroken vista of despair.
West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957. It was a modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the brainchild of some of the most stellar names in the arts: Leonard Berstein was the composer; Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics; Jerome Robbins choreographed and directed the production; Arthur Laurents wrote the book. The play addressed American issues that are still on the table today; it looked at immigration and prejudice in a time before the Civil Rights movement swept the country.
The presentation at the Cobb Energy Center updated the original show somewhat, while being true to the original conception, including Robbins’ choreography. There were some new costumes, new gestures, more explicit language, and depictions of sex and violence, but all were kept within the boundaries of PG-13. There were young people in the row behind me who took it all in stride.
The dancing was filled with pyrotechnics. There were huge leaps, fabulous extensions, controlled balances, and intricate footwork performed at speed. There were style contrasts between the Puerto Rican youth and those who grew up in New York that reminded the audience of the differences between the two groups, but both were high-energy and meticulously reproduced from the original choreography by reconstruction choreographer, Joey McKneely.
The dance sometimes seemed a bit dated, especially the Rumble, which was a very formal, stylized dance/fight scene. The choreography was very well-done and well-danced, but no one watching in today’s era of realism on stage and screen would have believed the young men were really fighting. In my opinion, the most powerful dancer was Dan Higgins, as Diesel.
The contrast between the men’s and the women’s dancing was strong. The men gave the impression of power that was reined-in, taut, always under control. The women gathered their energy in their cores and exploded with it: hot-blooded and passionate, but also down-to-earth and empathetic. Michelle Alves stole the show for me, with the character that became the most developed as the musical progressed. She portrayed Anita as a woman of infinite layers, a woman caught in a changing world who was developing her sense of self, along with her sense of right and wrong. Her character was one I would like to meet and befriend. She somehow managed to infuse her dancing with the complexity of her character while still being technically precise in both solo and group dances.
The stunning voice belonged to Mary Joanna Grisso, as Maria. She reminded me of a young Sarah Brightman in vocal qualities, and she was the one singer whose voice was never, ever lost in the powerful sound of the orchestra.
I interviewed co-dance captain Blue Cervini a couple of weeks ago. She commented several times on how honored she was to be able to bring this historically significant musical to the Atlanta audience. Seeing the play live, on-stage, again reminded me just how insightful her statements were. This piece of musical theatre has survived for over 50 years because it is still meaningful to audiences, but also because the music is wonderful and the dance makes the audience want to move with the characters on stage. It is ultimately engaging. The Romeo and Juliet story is overlaid with a more important commentary about people and their ability to be hurtful and hateful to others who are different. It is also about similarities, not just differences. West Side Story sent the audience home wanting to make the world a better place, and with a few ideas about how to do it. That makes this play a perfect one for the holiday season.