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REVIEW: Youthful West Side Story Runs Scared (Ordway)

Desiree Davar as Anita (center) with the Shark Girls in the Ordway Center for the performing Arts production of West Side Story. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Where should one begin with an iconic musical like West Side Story? Composer Leonard Bernstein began by saying, “I’d always thought of West Side Story in terms of teenagers.” This focus is the central note in the Ordway’s current production of West Side Story: a bunch of young, terrified, and sometimes very excited teenagers get into trouble far above their heads.

Favorite Musical Moments

  • “Mambo” in the gym
  • Tyler John Logan and the Jets in “Cool”
  • Evy Ortiz and Tyler Michaels in “One Hand, One Heart”

As with most canonical musicals, West Side Story has been staged every way to Sunday. In the past 20 years or so, “edgy” productions emphasizing grittiness and machismo have dominated. This particular take follows an opposite tack, infusing Maria and Tony with just as much youthful exuberance as the whole mess of Jets and Sharks – even the tough-talking and outwardly stoic Riff and Bernardo – are sweating uncertainty and fear. It’s a different vibe, but not out of place.

This creative decision by director Bob Richard spills over into other aspects of the show. As one might expect, the dancing is very much on point and pops with vitality – dance captain (and Bernardo) Alexander Gil Cruz has clearly drilled the troops to a fine edge. There is a strong sense that the Jets and Sharks put so much into their dancing as a self pep talk, especially when facing off against their rivals.

Maria (Evy Ortiz) and Tony (Tyler Michaels) enjoy a brief, happy moment. Photo by Rich Ryan.

This inner-outer discrepancy contrasts sharply with the exuberance showed by Maria (Evy Ortiz) and Tony (Tyler Michaels). So much glee permeates Michaels’s performance of “Maria” and Ortiz’s performance in “I Feel Pretty”; even before their meeting, Tony and Maria are off in the clouds.  As the only genuinely self-confident, optimistic, and happy-with-life people (much more so than in many recent stagings), it makes perfect sense that they would be attracted to each other – or, perhaps more accurately, to the idea of each other. This infatuation bubbles out in their joyful rendition of “One Hand, One Heart,” which is more joyful than passionate.

Passion bubbles out somewhere else: this production has a lot of groping onstage, which is simply distracting. Also distracting was the large amount of reverb used on the vocals; at Thursday’s performance, many song lyrics were lost in the reverb tail and a few songs were marred by high-frequency buzz. Since the Ordway’s sound for in-house shows is normally stellar, one hopes that future nights will allow the on-stage vocal talent to be heard more clearly.

The Sharks pop some moves. Photo by Rich Ryan.

On the topic of distraction, a number of visual elements seemed poorly thought out. Even taking into account the Jets’ devil-may-care attitude, the dangers of placing a dart board on the inside of a glass door facing the street seem self-evident: poor lighting, damage to the glass, and a high chance of hitting some poor sot rushing in. Similarly, the jaunty angle of a brick wall backdrop – with a perfectly vertical door cut in it, no less – belied shearing stress, subsidence, and common sense. While these and several other obtrusive elements didn’t dampen the audience’s clear enthusiasm for the performance, they were out of step with the rest of the production design, which skewed more towards realism.

Perhaps the most impactful result of Bob Richard’s focus on the younger cast can be seen in the dream ballet in Act II. When it arrives, the Scherzo and “Somewhere” seem to show the mental world that our star-crossed lovers inhabit. When the dream falls apart, it’s heartbreaking and tearjerking for the audience as well.

West Side Story plays through April 16 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine