By using more modern movements, director Oanh Nguyen and choreographer Kelly Todd have deconstructed the classic musical in a bold move, one that focuses our emotions towards star-crossed lovers Maria (Gina Valez) and Tony (Keaton Williams). Fortunately, the gamble -- aided by superior casting -- pays off.
One would think that staging a big dance show in a tiny space would be a fool's errand. The long thin box of a set, with audiences on both sides and with additional catwalks behind the audience, initially seems only big enough to fit a few actors. But when the cast are in the audience's face, menacing them from in front and behind, there's a sense that violence could come from any angle -- a feeling which is all too appropriate for this tale of the turf war between the Jets and the Sharks.
The choreography feels unpolished, like these are actual street kids expressing their rage. Most striking is the "Cool" number, where the actors are stomping on the stage, slamming chairs like petulant children.
In addition, fight director David McCormick not only stages realistic rumbles, but the rape of Anita (Chelsee Baldree in a sizzling, stirring performance) turns feral; it's clear just how sociopathic the boys have turned due to their anger.
The most changed number, however, is "Dance at the Gym." In the original, namby-pamby organizer Glad Hand begs the kids to play his social game, a version of musical chairs where boys and girls circle each other and dance with whoever ends up next to them. However they ignore his instructions and Jets remain with Jets, Sharks with Sharks. Here, they actually do dance wherever they land. Nguyen uses this opportunity for Anita to taunt boyfriend Bernardo (Robert Wallace) with Jets leader Riff (Gasper Spinosa), heightening their hatred.
However, they also have Maria dance suggestively with Baby John (Eric Michael Parker) which feels inappropriate and dispels the notion of love at first sight between Tony and Maria. Moreover, when Tony and Maria's eventual love ballet occurs, their dancing has been removed and replaced with just dialogue, which doesn't feel as poetic.
But the audience catches up quickly. During one moment when the couple kiss, a smile creeps on Valez's face that exemplifies the discovery of love. Their "wedding" scene is tragically tender and their final moments together are heartbreaking. Both performers also have outstanding singing voices and make Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's songs pop.
Of the large supporting cast, Eric Ronquillo stands out with his hunched shoulders and off-balanced hair as A-rab, who appears to be borderline psychotic, and Elena Murray proves to be a perfect foil for Baldree's Anita as the voice of Puerto Rican Pride in "America."
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