Despite doubts, 'West Side Story' captivates with character love, loss

Murder, true love and a pinch of comedy — “West Side Story” has all the ingredients for an engaging show.

But prior to seeing the show live, I had my doubts about this recipe.

While sitting in my chair at Wharton Center, awaiting the beginning of the production, I found myself struggling to believe I would be able to relate to the tale of “West Side Story,” which is one of two teenage gangs battling for control of New York City’s streets.

The more I saw of the show, which opened at Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall on Tuesday night, the more I began to realize how captivating and complex it was.

After just a few scenes introducing many of the musical’s characters, I came to the conclusion that the story is more than simply a straightforward tale of death and love.

The beloved classic, which originally opened on Broadway in 1957, maintains its timelessness despite being slightly modified to take a more modern approach.

By incorporating more Spanish speaking into the show — something the original production lacked — viewers like myself were provided with a better look at the cultural divide existing between the gang of Puerto Rican immigrants and the gang of Americans.

Although the addition of the second language was necessary — because realistically, those who just recently immigrated to the U.S. from a Spanish-speaking country still would speak some of their native language — it made some parts of the show difficult for me, as a non-Spanish speaker, to comprehend.

The use of weapons, such as knives and guns, combined with acts of violence, such as rape and murder, in this revised production more successfully portray gritty Manhattan street life than the original production did.

During such violent instances, the powerful music performed by the orchestra heightened the sense of tension and drama, making for an on-the-edge-of-your-seat experience.

Throughout the night, about 15 musical numbers were performed, including several of my personal favorites, “America,” “Maria” and “I Feel Pretty.”

Musically, the women of “West Side Story” stole the show with their strong yet delicate vocals that carried well throughout the entire theater. Although the male singers clearly are talented, throughout the show, their performances were outshined by their female counterparts.

Between the flawless balletic choreography, perfectly coordinated fight scenes and imminent danger lurking around every street corner, it’s almost impossible not to remain entertained throughout the show’s entirety.

But in the end, everything circles back to the tragic love story of Tony and Maria — two impassioned young people caught in the middle of their rivaling, prejudice-filled communities.

The show closes with an end to the pair’s battle and Tony’s life in a scene that was by far the most emotional and intense of the show — the best few minutes that showcased Maria’s talent.

Whether you find yourself captivated by the couple’s inspiring yet doomed quest to be together and get away from their troubled pasts, or you are exhilarated by the violent, action-packed scenes throughout the production, “West Side Story” does not disappoint.

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