‘West Side Story’: still ‘pretty, witty and bright’
‘West Side Story’: still ‘pretty, witty and bright’

There are plenty of reasons to revive a classic musical, be it audience familiarity, high quality of the work, or just a plain, old-fashioned cash-grab.

In 2009, a Broadway revival of perhaps the most famous musical of all time, “West Side Story” arrived with much fanfare under the guidance of original book writer Arthur Laurents with the goal to give the production that debuted in 1957 a more contemporary feel.

Now a touring production of that revival has made its way to St. Louis and is currently playing at the Fox Theatre through February 26.

When hearing that “West Side Story” is in town, the question immediately becomes, after seeing the movie, hearing the songs in everything from commercials to talent shows, and being subjected to more than 50 years of community theater and high school productions, is there any real reason to see it again outside of pure, unadulterated love for the show? (Which does happen to be a highly respectable reason.)

Fortunately, the answer is yes. There is a lively freshness to this glossy production that is sure to please both theater-going veterans and neophytes alike.

For those of you who have spent the past half-century in a sensory deprivation booth, “West Side Story” is a simple update of the “Romeo and Juliet” tale.

Set on the streets of 1950s New York City, our Romeo is now Tony (Ross Lekites), the star-crossed head of a white, working-class street gang named the Jets.

Tony falls for Maria (Evy Ortiz), the sister of Bernardo (German Santiago), the head of a rival Puerto Rican gang dubbed the Sharks.

As the sad and familiar tale of Tony and Maria’s forbidden love plays out before us, two noticeable “updates” permeate the show. First and foremost, the Puerto Rican kids actually speak Spanish. Who knew?

“West Side Story” has always endured a certain amount of white-washing (Natalie Wood was about as Puerto Rican as polka), but now not only do we get some honest-to-goodness Spanish dialogue, but some of the show’s songs get a Spanish makeover, such as “I Feel Pretty” morphing into “Me Siento Hermosa.”

The other update is a little more subtle, but it involves giving the Jets and Sharks a tiny bit more of an edge as sexual innuendo and obscene gestures are featured more prominently. On paper, the show remains solidly PG. However, the subtext gets ratcheted up well into PG-13 territory.

Granted gang fights that feature intense choreography and snapping can only be so believable, so we should never rely on any production of “West Side Story” for an accurate portrait of New York City street gangs of the 1950s.

Further strengthening the production is the set design, most notably the lighting which colors the mood of each and every scene in a new and interesting way.

The cast is strong, but not vocally remarkable. It’s clear the parts went to the strongest dancers because the show is an impeccably choreographed masterwork. It’s almost as if the thought process in casting was to wow the audience with the dancing and then let the strength of the songs speak for themselves.

And what about those songs? You don’t really need to say much more than music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The songs are timeless and pristine examples of the best of musical theater as each captures the tone of the scene, advances the story, and is unique and compelling enough to stand apart from the others. You are lucky if any modern musical has merely one or two songs of this caliber.

My wife put it best when she said, “If you asked me what my favorite song from “West Side Story” is I would just have to stare at you. It’s just an impossible question to answer.”

I wholeheartedly agree with her, and this time it’s not just because I don’t want to have to sleep on the couch.

Look, there are few sure things in this world when it comes to spending your entertainment dollar, but this production of “West Side Story” is as close as you can get. Go see it.

“West Side Story” is showing at the Fox Theatre now through February 26. For tickets call (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.

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