'West Side Story:' Old steps, new fire

No conductor would say "I'm going to lead Beethoven's Fifth Symphony just the way Arturo Toscanini did 60 years ago." No actor would declare, "My performance in 'Death of a Salesman' will replicate Lee J. Cobb's in the first production."

Yet Jerome Robbins' iconic dances are such a part of "West Side Story" that the piece might seem odd if the Jets and Sharks didn't leap through their aggressive mini-ballets.

So director David Saint and choreographer Joey McKneely produced a satisfying hybrid for the national tour: a version that gives the full flavor of Robbins' 1957 ideas with a more realistic edge. I've seen many a "West Side Story," and this is the closest I've come to believing these gangs might prowl Hell's Kitchen in New York.

Every characterization adds to this feeling. We get a Maria (Evy Ortiz) who's innocent but not saccharine, paired with a Tony (Ross Lekites) who's gentle with her but virile enough to have co-founded the Jets. Riff and Bernardo (Drew Foster and German Santiago) have natural leadership qualities, which makes the waste of their lives more tragic; you sense in them not aging juvenile delinquents but men ready to climb out of strait-jacketed lives.

When the Jets sing "Gee, Officer Krupke," it's more resignedly bitter than mocking. (One Jet stands aloof, as if to ask, "How can you jape like this after a pal got stabbed?") When the tomboy Anybodys (a fine Alexandra Frohlinger) sings "Somewhere," it's less an anthem of hope than a plaintive fantasy unlikely to come true.

The show gives us time to think about these things only in Act 2; the first act shoots forward with the speed of Tony and Maria's romance. (The story spans less than 48 hours, so that's not inappropriate.) Thus "Maria" is now an outburst of joy, rather than an expression of wonder; "Something's Coming" becomes impetuous, rather than reflective.

Yet even at this pacing, the songs make almost their full effect. Has anyone but Leonard Bernstein written a Broadway score in which literally every number both contributes to the story and has strong musical appeal? This is surely the greatest show not to a win the Tony for best musical: Voters in the Eisenhower years preferred "The Music Man."

The themes of "West Side Story" - teen angst, the heat of first sexual passion, economic deprivation in the urban jungle - have dated as little as the music. The white-on-brown racial conflict makes us wince when the Jets claim Latinos steal jobs from "real" Americans: "My old man says Puerto Ricans ruin free enterprise...They're the reason my old man went bust." (Though one Jet has the sense to point out that the old man was going bust anyhow.)

This revival controversially included Spanish dialogue and lyrics for extra authenticity, though some were dropped after the Broadway run closed in January. Maria and Anita (vibrant Michelle Aravena) sing in Spanish in high emotional moments; Bernardo addresses the Sharks in that language.

I have no idea whether someone who doesn't speak Spanish and doesn't know "West Side Story" would struggle to follow the plot, but this innovation adds to the realism.

And it could've been worse. Bernstein, Robbins and book writer Arthur Laurents initially considered a gang-based show called "East Side Story," in which a Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust fell for the son of Roman Catholics. Not only would the songs be totally different -"A Goy Like That," perhaps? - but we might now be listening to lyrics in Yiddish.