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Oct 15, 2012

Somewhere, a Place for Us

By Michal Jansen Miller

Riff, the leader of the Jets, stands center stage and glares out at the audience. Before a single note is played, before a word is said, before a step is danced, before a finger is snapped. He stares: Sullen, menacing. Intimidating. Dangerous. The contrast between the West Side Story we’ve all seen and this challenging new production is clear the moment the house lights dim. We are invited into a new vision of the show we all grew up with. “I dare you,” Riff seems to say. As do the original creators who have invited us along for the journey.

“I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things, “ said Arthur Laurents, the director of the Broadway revival that this national tour is based on. ”And the truth is, they’re all killers – every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story.”

Here is a West Side Story for our time. One we have never experienced. It opened on Broadway in 2009, recouped its $14 million investment after running only 30 weeks, played 748 performances, and became the longest-running production of the groundbreaking musical in Broadway history.

The show has been infused with contemporary sensibility and knowledge of what has and has not changed in this country over the past 50-plus years. Leonard Bernstein’s soaring music still haunts; Jerome Robbins’ muscular choreography, reproduced by Joey McKneely, remains invigorating. But Laurents has added more grit to an already gritty show, and heightened the romance.

I was in a local production at EKU in the 1980′s as a Shark. The director made it clear: the Jets were the good guys: clean-cut and cute. As Sharks, we were told to be “slick and sinister.” What intrigues me most about this production is the level playing field. The Sharks take to their own native language, when the need arises. The Jets? Killers also. It reminds us that both gangs are caught up in the violence and prejudices of their daily struggle to survive.

I’ve a feeling come November at the Opera House, we’ll still leave humming the familiar melodies of “Tonight”, “Somewhere”, and “Maria”. We’ll be exhilarated by one of the most heralded Broadway revivals of our generation.

But we might not feel quite so pretty.

Somewhere,-A-Place-for-Us.jpgINSIDER Trivia:

The street-smart Spanish infusion for this production is the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of last season’s In the Heights. This is not a bilingual production. 10% is sung/spoken in Spanish for dramatic effect. 90% of this production remains in English.