After 58 years of lilting Latina adolescence, Maria still feels pretty. But “West Side Story,” at North Shore Music Theatre through Nov. 20, no longer feels gritty — as was its legendary originators’ aim. And what a dream team it was that conceived the notion of “Romeo and Juliet” removed to contested New York turf where second-generation American immigrants warred with more recently arrived Puerto Ricans: Jerome Robbins was the director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein the composer, Arthur Laurents the librettist and a 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim the lyricist.
This deep into the 21st century, the groundbreaking musical’s dueling Jets and Sharks — in their squeaky-clean sneakers, flexing their wet-behind-the-ears braggadocio while dancing around their hormones and switchblades — seem like babes in the woods of 1950s Manhattan. But oh that rapturous Bernstein score, alternating horn-hyped dissonance and crystalline melody! And oh those muscular built-in ballets, with their Latin inflections and high-flying nods to Robbins!
Helming the North Shore Music Theatre production is a married pair of veteran choreographers: director Bob Richard and choreographer Diane Laurenson. The dance numbers are a bit cramped on NSMT’s disc of a stage and slowed by the trips up the aisles to get there. But they are athletically performed, the gangs’ and girls’ aggression transformed into impressive leaps and bounds. (If only all modern warfare were confined to finger snapping, crunches and jetés.)
But the beating heart of this production is its Tony and Maria, who bring to the musical’s familiar, gorgeous melodies — “Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart” — both pellucid pipes and a palpable tenderness. Evy Ortiz and Bronson Norris Murphy, who also played the star-crossed lovers at Rhode Island’s Theatre By The Sea this past summer, are both believably young and persuasively in love.
The fizzy, diminutive Ortiz — a lyric coloratura crossed over into musical-theater — beautifully blends her voice with Murphy’s ringing, effortless tenor. Moreover, her teasing, infectious “I Feel Pretty” proves she can get along without him. Murphy, for his part, wrings all the hopeful agitation from an understated “Something’s Coming” and both touches and thrills with his simple, stunned “Maria.” Both performers are not only soaring vocalists but convincing actors — even when the material itself comes across as more quaint than, as critic Brooks Atkinson found it in 1957, “horrifying.”
The most recent Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” a 2009 outing directed by original librettist Laurents (then in his 90s), tried to emphasize/contemporize the culture clash by translating some of the Sharks’ dialogue and lyrics into Spanish. (The translations were by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda!) Most were switched back to English six months into the two-year run, and there is only a smattering of Spanish in the NSMT production, which is better than rote, but more reverential than compelling.
At NSMT, there are several holdovers from the Theatre By The Sea staging, which was also helmed by Richard and choreographed by Laurenson. (Producer Bill Hanney is impresario of both venues.) Tall, clean-cut Tyler John Logan gives a nimble if slightly bland performance as Jets leader Riff, Alexander Gil Cruz is the dashing, seething Sharks leader Bernardo.
New to the production, though not to the role, is Michelle Alves as Bernardo’s defiant girlfriend and Maria’s compassionate confidante, Anita — the character that comes with a license, first exercised by Chita Rivera, to steal the show. A native of Puerto Rico who played Anita on the 2009 revival’s national tour, Alves supplies the production with what grit it’s got. An authoritative mezzo and a terrific dancer, she’s less a showboating Anita than a formidable one. But though her authentic accent is welcome, I wished she’d brought sharper diction to Sondheim’s witty, one-upping lyrics for “America,” in which the Sharks “girls” debate the merits of their native isle vs. those of Manhattan.
Of course there’s still the Sondheim showcase “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a saucy bit of playacting on the part of the Jets before the musical, already a couple of dead bodies in, goes completely dark and muted. The cheeky, prescient number, in which the badgered and “misunderstood” American hoods pull every trick in the sociological book to excuse their bad behavior, is crisply if broadly performed here by a gang of bros flapping their trumped-up neuroses like the Sharks inamoratas do their crinolines.
At heart, “West Side Story” was and remains a plea for tolerance, a paean to love without borders — though the message, extruded from the show’s adult mouths, sounds pretty square, and from Tony’s and Maria’s, painfully naive. The musical is also, as Sondheim himself has said, a “melodrama” (whereas “Romeo and Juliet” is a tragedy). But whether it entirely transports as a theater piece in these tougher, even more divisive times, “West Side Story” boasts one of the most iconic scores in Broadway history. And when it’s emanating from the glittery pipes of Ortiz and Murphy, bolstered by a 16-person pit orchestra, it’s — like the song says — “almost like praying.”
"West Side Story" is playing through Nov. 20 at the North Shore Music Theatre.