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Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet creates drama by having its 14th century star-crossed couple come from opposing families long in conflict. Although Broadway's West Side Story is based on that play, the musical ups the tension by having its lovers come from different ethnic backgrounds, represented by warring street gangs in 1950s New York City. Six decades after the work's premiere, it's lost none of the original impact, because the world's "us-vs-them" mindset seems to have worsened over the years.
As valuable as West Side Story is for its reminders about the tragic results of such thinking, it's not produced as often as other classic Broadway musicals because it requires the "triple threat" – performers who can act, sing and dance, in equal measure. North Carolina Theatre's production has those and, under Eric Woodall's sensitive direction and Jeremy Dumont's authoritative choreography, they wow with their estimable talents and grab the heart with their committed characterizations. (Cast and crew bios are here.)
The creative team's vision is darker than usual, employing an approach that focuses everything on the chilling essentials of the plot. Bob Lavallee's minimalist set design has a backdrop of movable panels representing neighborhood apartment buildings, fronted by metal balconies and fire escapes. Playgrounds and alleyways are suggested by movable sections of chain-link fencing, while bedrooms and shops are established with a few furnishings efficiently placed by cast members.
Samuel Rushen's lighting design keeps the atmosphere appropriately stark and shadowy, allowing nothing to break the grim reality of the dramatic situation. Tightly focused pools of light put much of the action in bold relief. Tammy Spencer's costume designs complete the approach by having the warring gang members and their girlfriends in single colors: black for the Jets and white for the Sharks.
The sudden spark between Tony, whose Polish background allies him with the Jets, and Maria, whose Puerto Rican heritage ties her to the Sharks, becomes a symbolic beacon against all the darkness, inevitably temporary though it is.
The genius of Jerome Robbins' original choreography was its unique combination of showy Broadway-style dancing and ballet's lyricism. The musical's extended dance sequences tell much of the story, including the posturing and violence among gang members, easily believable because every step represents characters' moods and intentions. Jeremy Dumont recreates all the iconic moves and poses from Robbins' original and, at Tuesday's opening, his NCT cast dazzled and electrified with their stamina and energy.
Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics still hold their power with soaring loves songs and caustic comic numbers. Bernstein is especially brilliant in the accompaniment of the "Dance at the Gym" and "Somewhere," suitably rhythmic or dreamlike in the capable hands of music director Edward G. Robinson and his orchestra.
Addie Morales brought her considerable experience playing Maria across the country to her charming portrayal for NCT, her bright soprano easily scaling all the heights required. She played Maria less naïve and more aware of reality, but allowing her love to defy all odds. Morales' scenes with Zach Adkins' Tony were heartbreaking in their fierceness, with "One Hand, One Heart" being the emotional highlight. Adkins' upbeat characterization made Tony the more naïve one, rarely registering the obvious dangers of falling for Maria. But his confident negotiations of the range and dynamics in Tony's songs made for powerhouse vocals.
Michelle Alves gave Anita the required spunk and sensuality, literally kicking up her heels in the spicy "America" number and astutely communicating Anita's conflict between hating what Tony represents and wanting Maria to be happy. Her final scene in the drugstore, after being molested by Jets gang members, was gripping. Stephen Diaz, as Anita's brother Bernardo, used his imposing frame to swagger threateningly and instilled his every dance step with danger. As Tony's best friend Riff, David Prottas embodied the bitter hatred formed by insular gang membership, leading the "Jet Song" and "Cool" with volcanic intensity.
Notable contributions from Corey Rives' hotheaded Diesel and Danny Bevins' shy Chino were supported by a uniformly fine ensemble, including Supriya Jaya's lovely offstage singing of "Somewhere" providing the musical's one joyful moment, albeit only in a dream.
Eric Woodall's signature attention to every role meant having each gang member and girlfriend uniquely identifiable, such as Casey Wortham's humorous Rosalia and Chloe Calhoun's Anybodys. Potential throwaway parts such as police Lt. Schrank and drugstore owner Doc, here were played in three-dimensions by Estes Tarver and Jeffery West, respectively.
By now, complaints about amplification in musicals are useless because it's the way all are presented now. But at NCT's opening Tuesday, the sound system settings had everyone blasting out their numbers, even in the most intimate moments, so that vocals came off harsh and edgy. Women's' voices suffered the most, especially when in groups: in "America" and "A Boy Like That" the lyrics were virtually unintelligible. The amplification of the orchestra (hidden backstage behind the set) sounded tinny and cold, often dominating a scene even when only a few instruments were playing.
Despite the sound issues, the NCT production is recommended, both to first-timers and to those who've seen it multiple times. The compelling, dark interpretation fits what's happening in our world today, offering lessons that, unfortunately, continued to need relearning.
This production runs through Oct. 20. For details, see the sidebar.