I first encountered “West Side Story” as a wee lad, watching it on television. At the time I found it very strange that a gang of street toughs spent so much time prancing and leaping about like gazelles. I didn’t know much, if anything, about New York City street life, but I was sure that wasn’t how you were supposed to rumble.
When I got older I learned that dancing is just an unfortunate byproduct of musical theater. I gave it another chance and found “West Side Story” had indeed earned its reputation as a Broadway classic. The music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are clever and memorable. The dance choreography is energetic and fun (if you must put up with dance, it should be thrilling and not sleep-inducing).
And the story? Well, you can’t really argue with Shakespeare. At least you can’t in my house. Arthur Laurents managed to update “Romeo and Juliet” in a manner that didn’t offend my Shakespeare-purist wife, which is no small feat.
Despite being around more than 50 years, I had never seen “West Side Story” live on stage until last night when it launched a 13-day run at the Fox Theatre. It’s a first-rate production and well worth the time.
You probably know the story: The Jets have ruled the streets for years but now have rivals — a Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks. Tony (Ross Lekites) has been a leader of the Jets for some time but now he wants out of gang life. At a dance he meets and immediately falls in love with Maria (Evy Ortiz), the young sister of the Sharks’ leader.
It doesn’t end well. For the characters, that is.
Did I mention this is a top-notch show? The cast deliver the goods in both song and dance (In addition to the leads, Michelle Aravena gives a notable performance as Anita). The dance numbers are exhilarating, the music is delightful and the singing is sharp. The set design is spartan and unspectacular but suits the mood and feel of the show.
It should be noted that some songs — most notably “I Feel Pretty” — have been reworked with several lines sung in Spanish. This may throw you off if you like to sing along in your head, but it doesn’t diminish the charm or impact of the songs.
West Side Story runs through Feb. 26. www.fabulousfox.com