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updated: 7/26/2011 2:20 PM

'West Side Story' gets masterful production

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  • Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt play the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria in the national tour of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."

      Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt play the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria in the national tour of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."

  • The reproduction of Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography -- including the "Mambo" number -- is among the many reasons why the national tour of 2009's Broadway revival of "West Side Story" is worth the price of admission.

      The reproduction of Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography -- including the "Mambo" number -- is among the many reasons why the national tour of 2009's Broadway revival of "West Side Story" is worth the price of admission.

  • A chance meeting between Maria (Ali Ewoldt) and Tony (Kyle Harris) sets tragedy in motion in Leonard Bernstein's classic "West Side Story," running through Aug. 14 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

      A chance meeting between Maria (Ali Ewoldt) and Tony (Kyle Harris) sets tragedy in motion in Leonard Bernstein's classic "West Side Story," running through Aug. 14 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

  • The exhilarating "Cool" from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents' masterwork, "West Side Story." The national tour runs through Aug. 14 at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.

      The exhilarating "Cool" from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents' masterwork, "West Side Story." The national tour runs through Aug. 14 at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.

 
 

Watching "West Side Story" makes one wish Leonard Bernstein's masterwork was revived more frequently.

Not only is it sustained by a timeless love story and an ever-resonant plea for tolerance, but Bernstein's magnificent score amounts to a primer of 20th century music. Modern classical inspires the operatic "Tonight" quintet, "The Rumble" and the jaunty prologue that accompanies Jerome Robbins' unmatched urban ballet. Broadway-style ballads are reflected in the exquisitely lush "Maria" and the dreamy "Somewhere." "One Hand, One Heart" plays like a hymn. The majestic "Mambo" pays homage to its Latin roots, and the bebop-infused "Cool" epitomizes 1950s jazz.

A perfect synthesis of music, lyrics (by Stephen Sondheim) and book (Arthur Laurents' libretto is concise but potent), the 1957 musical also showcased Robbins' iconic choreography -- an electrifying balletic-athletic hybrid. It demands triple-threat performers and a first-class orchestra. No wonder few companies attempt it.

Thank goodness for Broadway revivals. Specifically, the 2009 revival (directed by Laurents, who died earlier this year), which inspired the bold, exhilarating national tour that opened this week at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.

The love story is among the best-known in modern theater. Set against the rivalry of two gangs, the action plays out on the fire escapes of New York City tenaments and in the dark recesses of highway underpasses, all conjured by set designer James Youmans.

There's a vitality to this brisk-moving production which boasts a first-rate ensemble led by Kyle Harris and the winsome Ali Ewoldt, who are entirely convincing as the star-crossed lovers matured by tragedy. Harris' boyish Tony -- the one-time Jet who's gone legit -- has a kind of awkward charm, while Ewoldt's Maria -- the newly arrived Puerto Rican girl he falls in love with -- suggests a young woman with remarkable resolve.

Their duets are lovely. So is their acting. (If Maria's heartfelt "Te adoro, Anton" doesn't leave a lump in your throat, you better check your pulse.) As Maria's brother Bernardo, German Santiago layers Old World graciousness over barely contained resentment, while Michelle Aravena brings worldly defiance to his spitfire girlfriend Anita. (For the record, the duet between Ewoldt and Aravena late in the second act packs an emotional punch that equals anything that came before it.) Joseph J. Simeone's Riff comes across more apprehensive than menacing (an intriguing choice), while Drew Foster's volatile Action adds a touch of danger. Also earning kudos is Christopher Patrick Mullen for his bitter, unflinching turn as the racist Lt. Schrank.

Robbins' expressive choreography, expertly reproduced by Joey McKneely, is as brilliant as ever. So is Bernstein's music, conducted by John O'Neil under the deft direction of music supervisor Patrick Vaccariello. David Saint recreates Laurents' innovative staging which has the Sharks and their girls speaking and singing in Spanish throughout. Don't be put off by it. The bilingual approach works, adding a bit of authenticity to a show rooted in the ethnic tension between immigrants seeking a thin slice of American pie and the disenfranchised, lower middle-class youth grasping for the crumbs.

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