Sunday, April 9, 2017

West Side Story at the Ordway

Anita (Desiree Davar) and Bernardo (Alexander Gil Cruz)
and the cast of West Side Story. Photos by Rich Ryan.

An excellent, energetic production of West Side Story opened at the Ordway on Thursday night. The run is very short--ending on April 16, so get your tickets quickly.

Everyone knows the story, right? Romeo and Juliet on the streets of New York City, with clashing gangs and cultures replacing Shakespeare's warring families.

My touchstone for this story will always be the 1961 film, which I saw on television many times. (Also, this movie was my school's go-to when the music teacher was out. Roll in the VCR cart and cue up West Side Story!) I know the show very well. And so much of the original dialogue was kept intact for the film that at points I felt that I could have recited the words along with the actors. But there's something comforting about hearing familiar lines that still resonate. The Ordway production hits all of those notes very well.
The Jets (Rich Ryan)

The cast was excellent, especially Evy Ortiz as a very young-seeming Maria. The whole story works better when we believe that she is a sheltered and innocent girl. Desiree Davar was a wonderfully tough and sexy Anita, and they both sang beautifully.

The really outstanding feature of this production, though, is the dancing. As I understand it, licensing the rights to the musical means using the original Jerome Robbins choreography. (Read more about that in this interview with Joey McKneely, who recreated Robbins' choreography for the 2009 revival of the show.)

The Sharks (Rich Ryan)
The music and the beats are familiar, and you'll recognize the movement, but this production, directed by Bob Richard and choreographed by Diane Laurenson, takes the dancing to new heights--literally.

Right from the start of the show, the Jets are soaring into the air, and when they meet the Sharks, even their choreographed fights have the dancers flying through the air at each other. It's amazing to see such incredible artistry and athleticism on display, and the dance is so important in conveying the energy and frustrations of these characters that it brings the whole production up a notch. A couple of times, when I saw the dancers panting into the dialogue scenes following their numbers, I had to remind myself that the filmmakers had weeks or even months to capture this choreography, while this incredible cast does the whole thing in around two and a half hours.

Evy Ortiz (Maria) and Tyler Michaels (Tony)
singing their faces off on that balcony.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
I was really pleased, when reading the program later, to see that at least 20 of the 29-member cast had at least some Minnesota credits. The Ordway production is a collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo, which is either a real attempt to improve representation on the stage or a brilliant marketing ploy. (The program doesn't give us much information either way.)

But it's a start, in more ways than one. The two organizations are partnering on artistic training programs focused on inclusion in the arts. The culmination of the collaboration will be the Ordway's production of In the Heights in September. I hope we will learn more about this partnership as it goes along.

In the meantime, if you love West Side Story, or Romeo or Juliet, or really amazing athletic dancing, see this production. Oh, there's also a love story, a lot of familiar-sounding issues about recent immigrants, and lovely music. But you knew that, right?