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The real turf battle of 'West Side Story' at the Ordway is grit vs. jazz hands

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Any production of West Side Story is going to grapple with tone. This is a show about entrenched prejudice and deadly violence -- but it’s also a show with a lot of jazzy finger-snapping. The Ordway’s new production exults in song and dance, but struggles with the material’s grittier side.

West Side Story

Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
$29-$129.50

In a smart collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo, some rising talents from local Latino communities are among the cast members playing Puerto Rican immigrants in mid-century New York City. From their ranks come the “Sharks” gang, who face off against the white “Jets” in Broadway’s most iconic turf war: Romeo and Juliet, as reimagined by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book) in collaboration with original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Some national ringers cap an impressive roster of onstage talent that doesn’t miss a beat in the big production numbers the show is known for. Conductor Raymond Berg and his orchestra rip into Bernstein’s music with passion and precision. Director Bob Richard and choreographer Diane Laurenson move their lithe, energetic performers across the stage with a close ear to the score — not just during the songs, but also in the instrumental interludes.

This West Side Story is first and foremost about the music and dance, secondarily about the acting. To put it plainly, these are not the most intimidating Sharks and Jets you’ve ever seen. The West Side Story rumble is obviously going to be danced, but this one is really danced, with knife thrusts that have you gasping not in suspense, but in admiration of the street fighters’ extension.

That sense of showiness over verisimilitude extends all the way to the top of the cast, where Tony (Tyler Michaels) and Maria (Evy Ortiz) sound amazing but seem to be infatuated more with the music than with one another. The character of Tony is a sensitive soul who struggles with an undercurrent of rage, but that current runs notably shallow in a wide-eyed performance by Michaels.

The featured performer who really takes command is Desiree Davar, whose Anita not only strikes a much-needed erotic spark but also finds the sardonic bite in songs like her showstopper “America.” The role can turn into an oversexed caricature; in this production, Davar’s confident seductiveness contrasts with a lot of awkward ass-grabbing on the Jets’ side of the stage.

If the show’s acting is uneven, the singing and dancing is not — and in West Side Story, that’s foundational to the storytelling. Richard and Laurenson not only have a strong vision for each number, they move the action fluidly from one scene to the next with the help of scenic designer James Youmans’s striking backdrops. Karin Olson’s lighting design is as precisely choreographed as the dance steps, using dramatic spotlights to great effect in moments like the one where Tony and Maria spot one another across the stage and the rest of the world seems to fade away.

West Side Story is one of the great American musicals, and the irrepressible joy of the Ordway’s production makes it easy to recommend. While the heavier moments don’t quite land, the show revels in escapism; it’s during the dream sequence, when the city disappears and the characters discover an idealized realm of peace and harmony, that this West Side Story truly finds its heart.