Four years now have passed since the great Arthur Laurents directed "West Side Story" in its last Broadway revival, a production that sparked some absurd controversy by attempting to instill the notion that veracity would be enhanced if the Sharks actually spoke a little Spanish, especially when the Jets were not in the room. It worked for me, but not for many others, and, during the preview and tryout process, the amount of Spanish in the show was whittled away, reportedly because audiences were struggling to understand the story. Really? You'd think we'd all know this American masterpiece by now.
Laurents, who wrote the book to "West Side Story" in 1957, died in 2011 at the age of 93. But that last major Laurents production is still out on the road, kind of, with his 2009 direction re-created by David Saint — who was Laurents' assistant director for the Broadway revival. Saints has far more directing chops than your average assistant and knew Laurents intimately; when "West Side Story" was last in Chicago, in 2011, Saints was directing an Equity cast in a production that was, on balance, better than the Broadway original, not the least because the pressure was off when it came to casting the lead roles of Tony and Maria, who had been rendered on Broadway with little mutual chemistry. (More chemistry might have allowed for more Spanish.)
The "West Side Story" that opened Tuesday at the Oriental Theatre is a non-Equity show of a scale that allows it to play one-nighters. Next week, it will be trucking from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Opelika, Ala., to Daytona Beach and Clearwater in Florida, all in a span of four days. And these kids don't even get the traditional Monday off. No wonder they all looked deliriously happy Tuesday night to be arriving in downtown Chicago on a hot, passionate summer night and dancing on the big stage of the Oriental Theatre in one of the greatest American musicals ever written — for an entire week. I mean we're no Opelika, but a traveling guy and a gal can find a good rumble in this town, especially when you don't have to wake up and schlep onto a shuttle bus.
Of course, it's not about looking happy but about raising your game. And, Tuesday night, you really could not fault this cast, which most certainly gave their very enthusiastic audience absolutely all this mostly inexperienced group could muster, which was far more than is typical. The vast majority of this cast recently graduated from some fine musical-theater programs and are making their touring debut in this production. Often, that's a recipe for, something less than Broadway standards, but given that "West Side Story" is a tale of teenagers in strife and love, freshness and raw talent can be ample compensations in this particular piece. That's especially true when you have a director as skilled as Saint and a choreographer of the likes of Joey McKneely, who here is instilling the famous original Jerome Robbins choreography in these very game kids, whose work is free and passionate.
Boy, do Addison Reid Coe, who plays Tony, and MaryJoanna Grisso, who plays Maria, look young. But that is at it should be. Coe's take on Tony is that the young Jet is a lover, not a fighter, and ain't necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer, which makes a certain amount of sense. (Most actors play Tony as rather smarter than events imply.) Coe has a moving vibrato and, while there are wobbly sections that betray the youth of his voice, he is wholly credible as head-over-heels with his sweet Maria. Grisso only goes so deep, but it's quite a charming and well-sung performance. As Anita, Michelle Alves does not lose herself in the potency of the music as one would like, but it's an honest piece of work. Same goes for Andres Acosta as a commanding Bernardo and Juan Torres-Falcon as a sad Chino.
The highlight of the show is the strength of the ensemble dancing and the life and emotion brought thereto. Back in the day, no one much worried about the ethnicity of the actors playing Sharks; the change there has forced casting directors to look beyond the usual crowd and, the evidence suggests here, that has offered opportunities to many deserving young performers.
Here's what is most important: You could take a young person to see this and leave feeling that they had a full-on "West Side Story" experience. Given that this is a sacred show — there is no other such score, which means repeat viewings are no chore at all — that is of utmost importance. Somewhat cheaper than normal tickets are available to see at least a couple of future Broadway stars, I'd wager. And the pit contains an impressively full orchestra of fine union musicians, whose work is all you'd expect.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye