Aléna Watters, Michael Graceffa, and the cast of Harbor Lights Theater Company's production of West Side Story, directed by Stephen Nachamie, at the Music Hall at Snug Harbor.
Aléna Watters, Michael Graceffa, and the cast of Harbor Lights Theater Company's production of West Side Story, directed by Stephen Nachamie, at the Music Hall at Snug Harbor.
(© Bittenbyazebra)

West Side Story has a near mythical place in the landscape of modern American musicals. With a score by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the story of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet on the tough, gang-ridden streets of New York City is beloved by fans of the 1961 film version as well as countless stage productions. Now Harbor Lights Theater Company has brought this ever-relevant musical to Staten Island's Music Hall at Snug Harbor in an exciting and moving production that remains true to the original stage version. The story comes to life with an exceptional ensemble of more than two dozen dancers who thrillingly execute Jerome Robbins' original choreography with eye-popping precision. A couple outstanding performances also make this production well worth the ferry ride.

The company dances Cool in Harbor Lights' West Side Story.
The company dances "Cool" in Harbor Lights' West Side Story.
(© Bittenbyazebra)

The Shakespeare-inspired story follows former gang member Tony (John Grieco) and Maria (Evy Ortiz), who meet and fall in love at a high school dance. They both live on New York's Upper West Side, but Maria's Puerto Rican background makes her an ill-suited match for Tony in the eyes of her family, especially her brother, Sharks gang leader Bernardo (Michael Graceffa). Tony's former posse, a white gang called The Jets, can't stomach the idea, either. As animosity between the rival gangs escalates, Tony finds his loyalties divided between old friends and his new love when he is forced to intervene in a rumble to prevent bloodshed. But when the standoff goes horribly wrong and two men lie dead, Maria and Tony long to escape from their violent world, only to find that their love is not enough to stop the destructive hate of those around them.

Harbor Lights' production of this beautiful and tragic tale contains some of the most extraordinary dancing you're likely to see anywhere. On a modest-size stage, this troupe of young dancers crackles in Felicity Stiverson's faithful re-creations of Jerome Robbins' electrifying choreography. The iconic "Dance at the Gym" number swirls and jives with colorful, whirling dresses and jazzy suits (costumes by Kurt Alger), and the shouts from the dancers echo loudly to the rafters. Led by Tim Roller as Riff, the dynamite "Cool" routine electrifies the theater with its syncopated pops and high kicks. And the mesmerizing "Somewhere Ballet," a dream sequence that wasn't seen in the film, is alternately elegant and unsettling, an effect intensified by Jake Fine's haunting lighting.

Stephen Nachamie directs an extraordinarily talented cast of young actors. Grieco gives a sensitive performance as Tony, and Anthony Johnson gets well-deserved laughs as Action with his "Gee Officer Krupke" shtick. But the show's two outstanding performances belong to Ortiz as Maria and Aléna Watters as Anita. Ortiz's voice is something out of the heavens. From "Tonight" to "One Hand, One Heart" to "I Feel Pretty," her charming presence and powerful yet delicate soprano fill the theater. When she delivers the moving Maria-Anita duet, "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love," alongside the dulcet-voiced Watters, eyes fill with tears. Both are talents to watch for.

The tragic love story from Manhattan's West Side has found a welcome new home on Staten Island's North Shore.