After Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Tony Speciale-directed contemporary staging and the Louisville Ballet’s classical interpretation, Broadway in Louisville caps off a season of “Romeo and Juliet” with the touring production of “West Side Story.” The musical opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday in Whitney Hall, with matinees and evening performances on Saturday and Sunday.
This production follows the 2009 Broadway revival of the groundbreaking musical that placed Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of gang turf in mid-century New York. The Montagues become the second-generation white gang The Jets, led by Tony, who falls in love with Maria, sister of the leader of The Sharks, Capulets re-cast as recent Puerto Rican immigrants.
The tour’s stand-out performer is Michelle Alves, whose fiery performance as Anita, girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo and surrogate nurse to Maria, lends this youthful cast a sense of maturity and gravitas. Alves is a powerful dancer and singer as well as a charismatic presence on stage, and she lives up to the standards set by the role’s iconic originators, Chita Rivera on Broadway and Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation (for which Moreno won an Academy Award). Fitting that casting went all-out with Alves, as Anita is easily the most developed of Arthur Larents’ sketched-out characters — optimistic about her new country and a true believer in both her man and his little sister’s rebellion, her second act betrayal of Maria is well-earned through trauma and utterly believable.
With music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins translating Shakespeare’s tragedy into musical theater, “West Side Story” remains one of the best examples of the genre. And yet, with ballet-influenced fight scene choreography and a book brimming with period slang, enjoying “West Side Story” somewhat hinges on suspending your sense of postmodern irony. You have to embrace a world in which calling someone “daddy-o” is a term of resepect, not a corny goof. Think of it as an act of translation, much like the healthy dose of Spanish woven into the book and lyrics of this production, which infuses those numbers with a new energy and authenticity.