NSMT Delivers Electric, Unflinching ‘West Side Story’ (5 Stars)



By Mike Hoban

‘West Side Story’ – Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Original Concept, Original Broadway Direction & Choreography by Jerome Robbins; Directed by Bob Richard; Choreography by Diane Laurenson; Music Direction by Milton Granger; Scenic Design by Kyle Dixon; Lighting Design by Jack Mehler; Sound Design by Don Hanna; Costume Coordinator and Additional Costume Design by Mark Nagle. Presented by the North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd. Beverly, through November 20.

“West Side Story” is truly an American masterpiece, not only for its stunning score and brilliant choreography, but for its unflinching and honest portrayal of cross-cultural hate – in a musical, no less. A production that features a graphic rape scene and three brutal killings was a complete deviation from standard musical fare  when it debuted in 1957 , so it’s no wonder that the more conventional (and brilliant in its own right) “Music Man” took home the lion’s share of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. But nearly 60 years later, ‘West Side Story’ still retains its raw power and ability to shock and educate, and the terrific production now being staged by the North Shore Music Theatre really does this classic justice.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Jets are a gang of juvenile delinquents with a “social disease”, i.e., products of a low income/education neighborhood, which greatly diminishes their prospects of achieving anything approximating the American Dream. They are engaged in a turf war with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang with even dimmer prospects. To settle territorial matters once and for all, Riff, the Jet’s leader, sets up a meeting after the local dance to challenge Bernardo (the Sharks capo), to a rumble. Riff is counting on his best friend and former lieutenant, Tony, a Polish-American, to help out in the battle, but Tony says he’s through with gang life. Those plans change when he shows up at the dance and meets Maria, the girl of his dreams, and the wheels are set in motion for the story’s timeless love story (and, of course, it’s multiple tragic endings).

NSMT has assembled a stellar cast, led by its outstanding female leads. Evy Ortiz is the quintessential Maria, wide-eyed and innocent in the musical’s early scenes, and a rage-filled tiger following the senseless and violent deaths of her loved ones. Ortiz’ vocals are flawless throughout, and her duets with Tony (Bronson Norris Murphy) are mesmerizing. But it is the fiery performance by Michelle Alves as Anita (Bernardo’s girlfriend) that nearly steals the show. Alves has a dominating presence as the only adult in the room in most scenes, and you can’t help but focus on her during the dance sequences, even when the full company is on stage – she’s that compelling as a dancer. Her scene with Maria following the death of Bernardo is heart-wrenching, and her work on Anita’s signature tunes (“A Boy Like That” and “America”) is first rate. Jane Abbott is also a standout as Riff’s uber-sexy girlfriend, Velma.

Murphy, while a bit wholesome for the role of Tony, is a talented vocalist, and his scenes with Maria where they profess their undying love despite having met only hours before, feel genuine. Tyler John Logan is a force as Riff, and NSMT favorite David Coffee gives a terrific performance as Doc. But it is the ensemble work that really drives this exceptional work, from the opening “Jet Song” through the “Finale”. Choreographer Diane Laurenson’s work is nothing short of brilliant, with the wildly energetic “The Dance at the Gym” and the hauntingly beautiful “Somewhere” numbers among the most memorable of the 2016 theater season. If you’ve never seen “West Side Story”, this production is a profound testament to what musical theater can be, in that it goes way beyond simple entertainment to show us the toll that blind bigotry takes in human terms. And if you have seen it before, see this one. You won’t be disappointed. For more info, go to: http://www.nsmt.org/west-side-story.html

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