If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve never seen “West Side Story.” That’s a fact even if you don’t share 1957 librettist Arthur Laurents’ antipathy to the 1961 Mirisch/UA Oscar winner, which (to Laurents at least) lowered the stakes and compromised authenticity. The piece’s ambition and adventurousness, still startling after 50 years, fully comes through in the current Gotham revival shepherded by the nonagenarian, though the touring version now gracing the Pantages stage is a patchier affair. Still, in live performance “West Side Story” asserts its primacy as a living masterwork, not a mere historical stepping-stone for subsequent serious tuners.
The coup is achieved by hearkening back to “Romeo and Juliet” not merely in plot — the feud between rival clans breached by two lovers — but also in ferocity. Like the best productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy, this revival emphasizes the oppressive heat, headstrong temperaments and bigotry forcing the characters into heedless error and inevitable sorrow.
The approach validates Jerome Robbins’ joyously muscular choreography — lovingly restaged by Joey McKneely — as an expression of character, and brings the second act dream ballet into sharpest relief. Its utopian vision of a “Somewhere” in which everyone looks alike, Jets and Sharks moving in untroubled harmony, is rudely shattered when people, as people do, behave very, very badly.
This touring cast, with David Saint reconstructing Laurents’ direction, is guilty of pushing the story’s mindless rush into near-caricature. The sideline adults are too often over the top, and the Jets and Sharks are sometimes unmodulated in their frenzy. (German Santiago’s Bernardo, sleek and intense as the leader of the Sharks, is a chilling exception.)
Yet Tony (Kyle Harris) and Maria (Ali Ewoldt) genuinely act their songs and convey all their roles’ shadings; they’re real kids with real problems. No Facebook dreamboat, Harris is an authentic neighborhood lunkhead elevated when transcendent love enters his world, his “Maria” a glorious working-out of brand-new feelings.
No conventional beauty, Ewoldt is so beguiling as to transform “I Feel Pretty” into a rite of maturity into womanhood, in a precise parallel to Juliet’s journey.
Stephen Sondheim’s simple lyric “I have a love and it’s all that I have” has never made more sense: Their love is indeed all these simple children have, and with Ewoldt and Harris enacting it so precisely, this production can’t help but wrench the heart.
Sondheim is famously less than comfortable with some of his imagery here, just as composer Leonard Bernstein allegedly lamented that this show would be his principal legacy. Yet if there’s another set of lyrics so well suited to its characters and situations, another score so sweetly melodic yet thrilling in its modernity a half-century after its creation, you’d have to look far and wide to find it.
And the daring of lowering a curtain on virtual silence, not once but twice, captures the gut punch of tragedy to which so many serious-minded tuners have aspired over the last half century, but which so few have earned.