The Tony® Award-winning 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story, originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins (1918-99), will always be special to New York director Jerome Vivona, who recently journeyed to Raleigh, North Carolina to stage the current North Carolina Theatre production of this timeless tragic love story loosely based on Romeo and Juliet (1594-95) by Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare.

Several years ago, while working on a European tour of West Side Story, under the supervision of Jerome Robbins and Alan Johnson, Vivona met his wife, Michelle O’Steen. They will always have Paris… and the other exotic tour stops that provided picture-postcard backdrops for their courtship.

In the European tour of West Side Story, Vivona played three fiery Jets (Baby John, A-Rab, and Action); and O’Steen portrayed Minnie, one of the Jets’ fanatical female followers. “We danced together in the dance in the gym,” Vivona recalls.

“Doing West Side Story [with celebrated American choreographer and director of ballet and musical theater Jerome Robbins] has always been the biggest highlight [of my career],” claims Vivona, who choreographed the commercial broadcast on CBS during the 2002 Tony Awards® Show. He also performed on The Kennedy Center Honors television show and in the film Everyone Says I Love You, starring Julia Roberts and Goldie Hawn.

On Broadway and on tour, Vivona performed in Guys and Dolls; Kiss Me, Kate; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; and Seussical. He also choreographed Off-Broadway productions of Tallulah’s Party, In Celebration of Life 6, and a major segment of Wall to Wall Loessor.

Vivona says, “West Side Story is the biggest show to perform. You’re singing, dancing, acting; and all of it is at such a high level…. The choreography [makes great demands] on the performers’ technique…. Very few shows demand that level of creativity and technique and artistry from the performers.”

Vivona, who also worked with Jerome Robbins on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), says NCT guest choreographer Stephen Nachamie “is recreating the original Jerome Robbins choreography for West Side Story. I am working with Steve,” Vivona says, “trying to recreate all of Jerry’s intentions as well as the original steps, to make the show a living theatrical experience.”

Set in teenage gang-ridden west side tenements of New York City in the late 1950s, West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 and ran for 732 performances. This landmark musical, which featured Top 40 hit songs by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and a superlative script by Arthur Laurents based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, earned two Tony® Awards — for Best Choreography (Jerome Robbins) and Best Scenic Design (Oliver Smith). The show’s musical highlights include “Maria,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere.”

The 1961 film version of West Side Story, co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Robbins, won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars and eight other Academy Awards®.

“I love the purity of the story,” says Jerome Vivona, “what it represents. A great deal of passion and energy were required to make the story work. It’s very exciting to be a part of.

“The music is extraordinary. The story is really timeless, and it can truly have an impact on the audience, as they ask questions about how they deal with people and relationships and how racism can really destroy out culture.

“I feel a real responsibility,” Vivona says, “both to the creators of the piece and our cast to do the best job possible, to help the cast fully realize their characters and the intangibles [about the script]. It’s just a lot of fun to be a part of.”

He explains, “First of all, there are so many wonderful moments that create real emotion. It’s a full ride. You have highs and lows, love, emotion. It’s just a fully rewarding experience; there’s no dead space in this show. Every character is important; and their relationships are dependent on one another. I think it’s one of the most rewarding shows to direct, definitely rewarding as a director.”

The current production of West Side Story, the first show of the North Carolina Theatre’s 20th season of bringing full-scale Broadway musicals to North Carolina’s Research Triangle, stars NCT veterans Dana Lynn Caruso as Maria, Eric Sciotto as Bernardo, and Troy Magino as Riff. Newcomers Michael Hunsaker and Rebecca Brancato co-star as Tony and Anita.

Riff is the handsome and charismatic leader of the Jets, a gang made up of local juvenile delinquents of diverse ethnic origins; and Tony is Riff’s sensitive former right-hand man. (Tony has dropped out of the gang, but Riff refuses to accept his departure.) Bernardo is the suave and cocksure leader of the Sharks, a gang comprised of recent immigrants from Puerto Rico; Maria is Bernardo’s much-beloved and totally innocent baby sister; and Anita is his hot-blooded girlfriend.

When Tony and Maria meet by accident at a neighborhood dance, it is love at first sight, much to the consternation of the Jets and the Sharks. The two gangs, already skirmishing daily over who dominates what piece of neighborhood turf, agree to a rumble in which a representative of each gang will duke it out. But the fistfight gets out of hand, and an all-out rumble ensues.

“Many of the characters relate to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in many ways,” Vivona says. “There are some differences, though. You have two warring factions…. The Jets are in place first. The story progresses as the Puerto Ricans start coming to the United States and move into the Jets’ turf…. Each [gang] is fighting for [its] own space, each one is fighting for [its] own place in the community.”

He adds, “Tony wants to extricate himself from gang life. When Tony and Maria see each other at the dance in the gym, they see only each other and not the lines drawn by the gangs. Of course, they’re drawn together. That creates a rift between the gangs. It’s unacceptable to both gangs to have one of their members to be seeing someone from the other side, simply because of their differences. They hate each other simply because they’re different.

“Bernardo sends Maria home from the dance…. Anita reminds Bernardo that Maria is an American girl now, and they can live by a different set of rules. Anita explains that [Maria] doesn’t have to fall in love with someone from their community. She can fall in love with anyone she likes.

“To be American,” Vivona says, “is to integrate yourself into society…. Love can and should conquer all hardships.”

The plot of West Side Story follows along Shakespeare’s story line, Vivona says. “But it’s how the writers of West Side Story deal with the end of this story that’s different from Romeo and Juliet.” At the end, Vivona says, there is some hope that the gangs will bury the hatchet, and not in each other.

Vivona says, “Reproducing the choreography of West Side Story in its entirety properly is a challenge, and so is honoring the intentions of the writers. It’s a huge piece with so many levels to it. The challenge is to make sure that you don’t leave anything out, that you don’t miss any nuance of the storytelling. Because of the demands of the script, choreography, and the music, casting is always a challenge — because the demands are so high. But once you’ve done that, it makes the rest of it flow more smoothly.”

Vivona is delighted with his leads and the strong supporting cast of New York actors and actresses and local professionals. “I’m tremendously impressed with their abilities,” he says. “I have tremendous respect for their talents. I think they can do justice to the piece. Their passion for the piece is evident in how they perform it.”

With lively instrumental accompaniment from a full orchestra under the dynamic direction of McCrae Hardy, set designer Peter Dean Beck’s striking sets borrowed from the Virginia Opera, Jeffrey S. Koger’s intense lighting design, and a colorful mixture of 1950s fashions leased from Costume World and period costumes created by Denise Schumaker, the North Carolina Theatre’s gala presentation West Side Story is a veritable feast for the ear and the eye.

West Side Story takes place on the west side of Manhattan,” Vivona explains. “The set represents the neighborhood where the Jets are established and where all the fighting between the gangs initially happens…. Most of these kids are born there, they live there, and they die there. There’s no hope of escape.”

He adds, “Jeff Koger’s lighting is, at times, ethereal and somber. [The show takes place during] August in a very, very hot summer. The colors represent the rage and the hope of both of the gangs and of Tony and Maria. The lighting will subtly help us with what’s going on on stage. We don’t have any lighting tricks….

“The costumes are very colorful,” says Vivona. “Each gang has [its] own color palette. The Sharks are represented by reds and purples. The Jets are represented by blues and yellows.”

NCT guest director Jerome Vivona adds, “West Side Story is a full theatrical experience. The audience is going to be fully entertained, especially if they like dancing. It’s one of the three most important pieces in musical theater history and something everyone should see at least once, a truly and uniquely American piece that’s revered around the world for the uniqueness of its storytelling.”

Vivona sees himself as the shepherd of the piece, which he freely admits is a homage to Jerome Robbins. “I take a fresh approach to many of his ideas,” says Vivona, “but it’s definitely in line with his thoughts.”

The North Carolina Theatre presents West Side Story Tuesday-Friday, Feb. 11-14, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18-$60. 919/831-6950, 919/834-4000 or or [inactive 11/03].