It's hard to not be charmed by a production of West Side Story that doesn't get in the way of its heartfelt, bittersweet romance. The current production by Center Stage, in West Kingston through July 26, not only lets the youthful idealism pour through, it delivers enjoyable song and dance.
Directed and choreographed by Russell M. Maitland, it fairly well accomplishes the hard part — the singing and hoofing — that keeps the 1957 musical from being staged as often as it otherwise would be. With a book by Arthur Laurents that updates the Romeo and Juliet story to the slums of mid-1950s New York, the Broadway hit was given spirit by the music of boy genius Leonard Bernstein and soul with the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.
Since the enmity between the Montague and Capulet families of fair Verona here becomes rivalry between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets, this musical has become an American why-can't-we-all-get-along morality play that you can imagine a younger Barack Obama starring in in another lifetime. (Originally Tony was going to be Italian-American and Maria Jewish, so a black Romeo isn't much of a stretch.)
In case you are a recent immigrant from the Galapagos or some other media-bereft rock, let me set up the story. Until a month before, Tony (Robbie Simpson) was leader of the Jets, a role now filled by Riff (Daniel Larson), his closest pal ( "Womb to tomb!" "Sperm to worm!"). The leader of the Sharks is Bernardo (Ben Gracia), whose sister Maria (Janna Burke) has recently arrived from Puerto Rico.
The big community dance at which the star-crossed lovers meet provides a major production number for two dozen dancers in this, one of the most choreography-dependent musicals of the genre. It's accomplished well here, with high energy and plenty of relaxed complexity as the number, named only "The Dance At the Gym," swerves in tempo from mambo to slow-motion, as Tony and Maria lock eyes and slowly approach under a spotlight, on a platform above the dimly lit throng.
The songs and storyline ebb and flow like that as well, breathing with the pulse of the city, with stopped time alternating with quickened heartbeats for the young lovers. Tony's wistful premonition, "Something's Coming," comes between the above song and the finger-snapping "Jet Song." His expressed longing in the former soon is reprised like an obsessive thought and amplified in the haunting "Maria." Simpson's voice isn't as strong as Burke's, whose dulcet soprano notes soar. Maria gets only one solo ("I Feel Pretty"), but Simpson's duets extract honey from Burke's voice in such gentle songs as "One Hand, One Heart." The ensemble collaborates on "Tonight," and again the thematic contrast of the show is maintained, as the words mean one thing to the gang members looking forward to a rumble and another to the blissed-out couple.
While Gracia provides just the right gangsta gravitas for a street leader, it is Emily Woo Zeller as his spunky girlfriend Anita who threatens to steal the show (as it was her job to do in Center Stage's excellent Cabaret). Again enhanced by other dancers, in this case the Shark Girls, Zeller makes "America" as snappy as a flag in a gale. It's the wittiest song in the show, and this time the contrast is between earnestly hopefulness new immigrant Rosalia (Kara Moulter) and the cynical Anita, who has had more experience here. (This production changes the cynic from Bernardo to her, for such exchanges as: "Life is all right in America/If you are white in America.")
West Side Story is certainly dated, but that doesn't detract from its entertainment value. It's hard to believe that quasi-beatnik hipsters could be taken seriously uttering such silliness as "Oooh, oooh, oobley-doo," as a pair of Jets molls repeatedly do. More significantly, you can imagine that if somebody flicked out a switchblade on a city street today, it might very well be shot out of his hand in a drive-by. This musical harkens back to a Golden Age of urban thuggery, when gangsters had a code of conduct and even they could appreciate a good love story.