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In transposing Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy of 16th century star-crossed lovers, set in Verona, Italy, to the mean streets of Manhattan, circa 1957, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents created the classic Broadway musical West Side Story, which the North Carolina Theatre has revived in a magnificent production that will complete its nine-day run on Oct. 20-25 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. NCT’s vibrant version of West Side Story has something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.
That would be Jerome Robbins’ original choreography (as recreated by guest director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse); stellar performances by Josh Young as Tony and Catherine Cheng Jones as Maria; spectacular scenery designed by Leo Meyer for Theater of the Stars in Atlanta, GA, and vivid costumes created for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem; and a raunchy rendition of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” followed by the public humiliation and attempted rape of Anita (the sultry Asmeret Ghebremicheal) by the Jets in the “Taunting” episode set in Doc’s drugstore.
In truth the TOTS sets and the UNC School of the Arts costumes are both on the original 1957 Tony Award®-winning designs by Oliver Smith (sets) and Irene Sharaff (costumes). But it is the ingenious way that producer Carolee Baxter and dynamic director/choreographer Josh Bergasse have put the pieces together with a vivacious cast and invigorating full orchestral accompaniment, with musical director Edward G. Robinson wielding a deft baton, that makes this 2009 Triangle edition of West Side Story not only a must-see musical, but a home-grown production to rival any Broadway tour.
In many ways, Tony is too good to be true. Our 20th century Romeo is a movie-star handsome, clean-cut, good-hearted Polish-American boy gradually backing away from the casual brutalities practiced by his erstwhile friends in the Jets street gang. Josh Young, who can hit the high notes of this demanding role with the best of them, makes “Maria” a show-stopper and adds dazzling duets with Catherine Jones on “Tonight” and “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us).”
Whereas Tony has a good heart beating beneath his sometimes scruffy exterior, he has also been infected by the virus of violence that is pandemic in his rundown neighborhood. By contrast, Catherine Jones is the very picture of innocence in her virginal white party dress as Maria, a girl newly arrived in New York from Puerto Rico. Our 20th century Juliet has not yet had her mind poisoned by prejudice against the "Polacks," "Wops," and "Krauts" who make life miserable for her fellow "Spicks."
Asmeret Ghebremicheal is a spitfire as Anita, Bernardo’s fiery girlfriend and Maria’s cool confidant and co-worker at the local Hispanic bridal shop. Leo Ash Evens and Freddy Ramirez give Tony’s best friend Riff and Maria’s brother Bernardo, the leaders of the Jets and Sharks, respectively, the same colossal chip on their shoulders and the same volcanic temper that can erupt at any time, with disastrous results.
The grownups are well represented by veteran actors Chris King as squinty, hard-boiled Lt. Schrank; Tim Caudle as roly-poly, huffing and puffing Officer Krupke; and Danny W. Norris as genial Doc, whose drugstore and soda fountain becomes a haven for Tony, just as Doc himself becomes a sort of father confessor for the troubled lad.
Praise also goes to crisp cameos by Joey Calveri as Action, Adrian Pena as Chino, Kiira Schmidt as Graziella, Brandon Rubendall as Diesel, and Mikey Winslow as Baby John. Lighting designer John Bartenstein; costume designer Ann M. Bruskiewitz; properties manager Laurie Johnson; sound designer Shannon Slaton also perform yeoman’s work.
But it is the stirring musical staging and kinetic choreography by director and choreographer Josh Bergasse that brings out the very best in this young and talented cast. The prolonged standing ovation at the end of Sunday’s matinee performance of West Side Story was well deserved. This is a show that really makes you want to stand up and cheer.
West Side Story runs though October 25 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. See our theatre calendar for details.