WABASH – Those who braved the weather and made it to the Honeywell Center in Wabash Thursday night were treated to an exceptional performance of the Broadway musical “West Side Story.”
From the opening scene in a New York neighborhood to the final heart-breaking scene in that same location, the show quickly transported the audience to a mid-1950s ethnic blue-collar burrough. There was so much tension between the “natives” and the immigrant Puerto Ricans from the start, that it was easy to forget everything else in life last night.
The prologue number of “West Side Story” kicks it off with a dance that’s half fight, half ballet. The guys move in the number so in-sync that it was like watching a flock of birds take to the air. They leaped, twirled and attacked one another in such a way that it was just beautiful movement yet very masculine. It also set up the tension between the two gangs, The Sharks and The Jets.
For anyone who hasn’t seen “West Side Story,” The Sharks are the Puerto Rican immigrants, and The Jets are the native New Yorkers (even though they’re probably second- or third-generation immigrants themselves). Because of who the gangs are, racism is a big, important issue in the production.
Despite all the unrest between the two rival gangs, a young couple finds love. Since this is a modernization of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” the lovers won’t have an easy time of it.
Tony (Jarrad Biron Green) co-founded The Jets with his best friend Riff (Benjiman Dallas Redding) about four years before the show starts. He’s lost interest in the gang activity, and even has a job at Doc’s (Mark Fishback), but still remains best buds with Riff.
Maria (Maryjoanna Grisso) has only been in the continental United States for about a month. Her brother, Bernardo (Michael Spencer Smith), wants her to marry Chino (Emilio Ramos), though he doesn’t do anything for her emotionally. Bernardo also is dating Anita (Michelle Alves), who has become Maria’s best friend and confidant.
It is at a dance on the first night of the show where Maria and Tony meet for the first time. When their eyes lock together, everyone else at the dance fades into the background and the spotlight shines on the star-crossed lovers.
It took me a few minutes to warm up to Green as Tony. Used to seeing George Richard Beymer Jr. in the 1961 film version, Green initially felt a little too clean-cut and boyish. As the show progressed, however, and he began fighting for his love for Maria, it became easy to push aside the Academy Award-winning movie and just see Green as Tony. And he can really sing, which is most vital when he hit the song “Maria” because that’s Tony’s ode to his love.
Grisso, as Maria, was everything you could want in that role. She was emotional, a talented actress and could really belt out a song. She hit some very high notes, and maintained them for longer than I can sometimes hold my breath. She also was a lovely looking lead actress, so there was no question that Tony would fall madly in love with her.
But it wasn’t just the two leads that made “West Side Story” at the Ford Theatre at the Honeywell Center exquisite. The supporting roles – especially  Alves as Anita – made the show one you’d want to return to over and over.
In previous versions of “West Side Story,” actresses like Rita Moreno and Debbie Allen played Anita. Alves – who has toured with the likes of Ricky Martin, Nelly Furtado and Black Eyed Peas, among others – gives a performance right up there with Moreno and Allen. She really gives the show its kick and her performance really reflects her own Puerto Rican heritage. I would watch a show centered around Alves as she really is a talent.
The Jets have some very animated members. They’re considered “juvenile delinquents” or “hoodlums” by the sparse adults in the show, but with their performances the actors on stage make you wonder more about the characters’ backgrounds. There’s Action (Michael Ehlers) who really delivers the dark comedic song “Gee, Officer Krupke” about juvenile delinquents in Act II. Anybodys (Rosalie Graziano) is a short tomboy who just wants to be a member of the gang. A-rab (Justin Joseph Laguna) gets marked by The Sharks in the opening number, and that becomes the catalyst for the rumble later. There’s also Baby John (Sam Rohloff), Big Deal (Nathaniel Dombek) and Diesel (Patrick Graver).
Other than Anita, Bernardo, Chino and Maria, The Sharks don’t seem to get as much stage time for individual members. However, they include Bolo (Alexander Cruz), Federico (Kevin Hack) and Pepe (Ricardo Rique-Sanchez). The Jets get to sing about being a Jet so you would think that the Sharks would also get their own song, but nevertheless, they performed well on stage Thursday.
There are only four “adults” in the story, two of whom are racist officers of the law. Officer Krupke (F. Tyler Burnet) would be OK with beating all young men of both gangs as they are all immigrants to him. Lt. Schrank (Skip Pipo) tries to get the Jets to help him get the Puerto Ricans, because he’s as racist as anyone, but they don’t see any reason to help the law.
Doc is truly the only adult who seems to care about all the young men and women, but they don’t want to listen to him. When, at one point, Doc tells the boys they are ruining the country, one of the Jets responds, “We found it this way!”
“West Side Story” is based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. With a book by Arthur Laurents, it also has music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim. The version on stage last night is Laurents’ original vision of the show, so there’s some differences from the movie. However, after finally having seen a Broadway-quality stage version of “West Side Story,” I still love the film version but  I think the live version adds so much more to the story.
And I left the Ford Theatre with many of the unforgettable songs in my head – “Jet Song,” “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America” and even “I Feel Pretty.”
Overall, “West Side Story” was a magical performance with a great cast that entertained me so well, I couldn’t sleep for a couple hours after I arrived home.
For more on the Honeywell Center and its upcoming events, visit its website at www.honeywellcenter.com