Youmans: 'West Side Story' revival is some of the 'best theater'

"West Side Story" was credited with changing the course of American musical theater when the Sharks and the Jets burst onto Broadway 55 years ago.

A national touring revival of the Broadway hit is coming to Orange County from Tuesday through Sept. 18 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

The production will feature songs from the renowned Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim score, including American songbook standards like "Tonight," "America" and "I Feel Pretty."

David Saint, the associate director on Broadway, has recreated the Tony Award-winning direction by librettist Arthur Laurents. Tony nominee Joey McKneely ("The Boy from Oz" and "The Life") reproduced the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Robbins directed and choreographed the original production, which starred Larry Kert as "Tony," Carol Lawrence as "Maria," Chita Rivera as "Anita." The first production received six Tony Award nominations for 1957, including Best Musical.

However, the general public may be more familiar with the 1961 Academy Award-winning movie directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as Maria and Tony, and Rita Moreno as Anita.

After two revivals, in 1964 and 1980, the 2009 Broadway production and current national tour mark the musical's third incarnation. Yet, "West Side Story" joins a growing list of successful revivals.

On Broadway, a recurring trend is beginning to reveal itself: revivals have become the favored daughter, while original works are gaining a reputation as that awkward middle child that can never quite get their — make that their audiences' — feet off the ground.

Despite tedious efforts, this "new wave" of contemporary musical theater may have a harder time taking off than everyone expected. As it turns out, the special effects, elaborate spectacles and catchy pop tunes are only alluring to the viewer for a little while and over time, lose their luster. Shows are closing at a record rate and consequently taking to the road.

So if revenue isn't finding its way to the newer, contemporary musicals, then what shows are filling the seats?

Perhaps theater-goers still have a soft spot for the classics. No other musical defines this speculation better than "West Side Story."

On March 19, 2009, its third Broadway reincarnation opened to rave reviews and broke box office records at the Palace Theatre. The production recouped its $14 million investment nearly 30 weeks later, according to a news release from the theater company.

The production on Broadway came to a close on Jan. 2, after 27 previews and 748 regular performances, the longest run in West Side Story's Broadway history. The original production followed with 732 performances.

Stronger-than-ever attendance proves that audiences still can't get enough of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria and street rumbles between the Sharks and the Jets.

However, before the production's Broadway debut in 1957, "West Side Story" had not yet blossomed into its final form. Six years earlier, Jerome Robbins had set the modern musical adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" in New York's Lower East Side, where tensions rose between Jews and Catholics during the Passover and Easter religious holidays.

It wasn't until Laurents suggested switching the conflict from religion to race — Puerto Ricans and whites in the original play — that the project took off and developed into the show familiar to audiences today.

The 2010-11 "West Side Story" national tour will feature the final cast to work with the legendary writer, who was a principle contributor to numerous productions of "West Side Story."

Laurents died in May 2010, while the company was on tour.

"It was little bit of a push knowing that we're the last company of 'West Side Story' he had ever seen," said Kyle Harris, who plays Tony in the revival coming to O.C. next week. "As tired as we are and exhausting as the road is, we are doing some of the best theater that's ever been produced in all of American theater history…"

If You Go

What: "West Side Story" at Segerstrom Hall

When: Tuesday to Sept. 18.

More Information: Individual tickets start at $20, and group discounts are offered for parties of 15 or more via the Group Services office at (714) 755-0236. Tickets can be reserved in person at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts Box Office, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, or by calling (714) 556-2787. For online ticket purchases, visit The 2 p.m. performance on Sept. 17 will be sign-language interpreted.

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