The beloved West Side Story now playing at the Denver Center for Performing Arts is a new, bold version of its original self that debuted on Broadway in 1957.
In the original production, the New York street gangs—the Jets and Sharks—were dumbed down and romanticized. Their members were cute and cool, not rough, mean and destructive. This play tells the story with a stark contemporary truth, radically different from the 50s show. It’s relevant and hip.
“I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things,” said Arthur Laurents, who created the characters for the 1957 musical and directed the 2009 Broadway revival on which the Denver production is based. “And the truth is, they’re all killers—every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story,” he said.
Not only is it tougher, it’s more authentic. In this show, the cast often speaks and sings in Spanish, making the Puerto Rican characters more genuine and bringing attention to the diversity of New York City.
Tension runs thick in this story that follows the Romeo-and-Juliet theme. Tension between the gangs. Tension between gang members. And sexual tension between Maria, the sweet sister of Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks, and Tony, a former member of the white, working class Jets. Their love is doomed from the beginning.
When Tony kills Bernardo in a rumble, the couple plans to run away. An attempted rape by the Jets of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, enrages her to tell them falsely that Maria has been killed. Tony seeks out her “killer” Chino, who shoots him. After cradling Tony’s dead body in her arms, Maria takes the gun and says, “I can kill now because I hate now.”
Does hating justify the senseless gang murders in our society?
Despite the dark theme and sad ending, the musical is filled with brilliant songs from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim that we’ve grown up singing. The enchanting “Maria” (“. . .say it loud and there’s music playing; say it soft and it’s almost like praying”) is beautifully sung by Ross Lekites who plays Tony. Evy Ortiz sings Maria with an opera-quality voice; her duet with Tony in “Tonight” brings chills. Other hits include: “One Hand, One Heart,” “Somewhere There’s a Place for Us,” and “I Feel Pretty” (also sung in Spanish, “Me Siento Hermosa”). The dance sequence to “Somewhere” is a highlight.
West Side Story runs through Jan. 1, 2012. For dates and tickets, call 303-893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.