On Theater: A dynamic 'West Side Story' revival

To successfully revive a modern classic musical such as "West Side Story" for the 21st century, you need more than melodic voices and inspired choreography. You need the elusive ingredient of attitude — an "us vs. them" mentality that pervades the production.

Thankfully, all three elements are present in abundance in the current incarnation of the landmark musical now in residence at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The show virtually bubbles over in attitude, establishing a conflict early on that will lead quite naturally to tragic consequences.

As directed initially by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show's original book, and later by David Saint after Laurents' death just four months ago, this touring production throbs with vitality, from the moment the Jets and Sharks taunt each other on the street to the murderous rumble scene which closes the first act and the heart-rending "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired finale.

The driving force of Leonard Bernstein's musical score, the combative choreography of Jerome Robbins and the pungent lyrics of Stephen Sondheim — in his Broadway debut — set the tone early on, bolstered by one of the strongest casts this show has ever seen.

The shimmering centerpiece is Ali Ewoldt's Maria, the young Puerto Rican beauty recently arrived in America who enters a forbidden romance with Tony, a onetime leader of the Jets, bitter rivals of her brother's gang of Sharks. Ewoldt, who possesses a voice of incredible range and power, also gives her character a savage eroticism rarely glimpsed in the role.

Kyle Harris as Tony is no match vocally for Ewoldt, but his awkward, boyish charm endears him to the audience. Harris scores most notably in the lower-key duet, "One Hand, One Heart," with Ewoldt.

As Riff, the pugnacious leader of the Jets, Joseph J. Simeone commands the stage with his dexterity and athleticism. His street-gang rival, Bernardo, is seethingly well enacted by German Santiago.

The fiery Shark girl Anita, a showcase role, is deliciously delivered by Michelle Aravena, who dominates the taunting "America" number with her buddies and electrifies in her dramatic duet with Maria, "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love."

Ensemble work is nothing short of awesome, particularly the sizzling contributions of Kristen Paulicelli, who plays Riff's girlfriend Graziella. Also notable is Alexandra Frohlinger as the tomboy Anybody's — who sings the haunting "Somewhere" in the ballet dream sequence (superfluous but beautifully done).

The token adults are uniformly strong — Christopher Patrick Mullen, John O'Creagh, Stephen DeRosa and Mike Boland as, respectively, Shrank, Doc, Glad Hand and Krupke. Mullen, not overbearing physically, compensates with sheer force of personality.

In this production, the Puerto Ricans often lapse into Spanish, which isn't as disruptive as it could be in a show less familiar to audiences. As employed here, this device effectively underscores the cultural differences between the two factions.

Bernstein's unforgettable musical score is solidly rendered by a mighty three-piece orchestra under the baton of John O'Neill. Robbins' original choreography is strikingly reproduced by Joey McKneely and sets a superb combative tone.

Few shows — certainly none on this side of the Atlantic — offer the complete package delivered by "West Side Story." The outstanding touring production at the Segerstrom Center is one that hits the mark on all levels.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "West Side Story"

Where: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Sept. 18

Cost: Start at $20

Call: (714) 556-2787

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