ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Leonard Bernstein’s gangland ode to “Romeo and Juliet” took Shakespeare’s story, transposed it to New York and set it to a finger-snapping score that still rings.
“West Side Story” opens at the Albuquerque Little Theatre tonight.
Set in the Upper West Side in the mid-1950s, the musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two street gangs of different ethnicities.
Tony, a former Jet, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes (choreographed by Jerome Robbins) and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theater. The music also featured Stephen Sondheim’s debut as a lyricist.
ALT Executive Director Henry Avery saw the original production starring Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera.
“‘West Side Story’ is very special to me,” he said. “It was the first show I saw on Broadway. I love the music, and I love the integration of the story and the music and the dance. It was a breakthrough show.”
The Albuquerque version stars Nick Handley as Tony, Michaela Bateman as Maria and Stevie Nichols as Anita.
Handley appeared in the ALT productions of “Le Misérables,” “Spamalot” and “A Christmas Carol.”
“He’s a very good singer. He has the right look, the right voice,” Avery said.
Bateman is a longtime actor on the ALT stage.
“She has a beautiful voice,” Avery said. “She was in ‘The King and I’ last year. She has a classic, beautiful voice, and she just radiates joy.”
Nichols possesses both the maturity and the sexiness, as well as the dancing ability, to play Anita, he added.
“You’ve got to find the characters who embody (both) the musical and ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” he continued.
“West Side Story” incarnates an innocence separating it from today’s much more violent street gang warfare, Avery said. Juvenile delinquency á la “Rebel Without a Cause” was the concern of the day.
“People wanted to be in gangs; there’s safety in numbers,” he said. “These were people who lived in poverty. The streets – that was their playground, their living room. Everybody’s scrambling for their share of the pavement. It gave them an identity. By default, they became somebody.”
The original production was nominated for six Tony Awards in 1957. The 1961 film starring George Chakiris, Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture. Moreno and Chakiris won for best supporting actors.