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THEATER REVIEW: “West Side Story” remains timeless tale worthy of supporting

You know you’re watching an old-fashioned musical when teenage boys – New York gang members at that – come onstage and start dancing. And it’s not hip-hop or break dancing, either.

But times change, and so has Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 classic “West Side Story” – at Civic Theatre through Sunday – with a makeover from book writer Arthur Laurents, giving the story more edge, more grit, and reflecting the fact that these gang members are not sweet kids. As Laurents puts it, “the truth is, they’re all killers.”

David Saint, associate director of the Broadway production, helms the show; Joey McNeely recreates the original choreography.

You remember the plot: Shakespeare’s ill-fated love story of Romeo and Juliet of the feuding Italian Capulet and Montague houses was translated by Laurents into the tragic romance between Tony (Kyle Harris) and Maria (Ali Ewoldt), of different ethnic groups, played out against the background of gang warfare between the Jets and Sharks.

Hatred and racism come easily to these kids. But when they’re not wielding knives, they’re dancing, and the heart of the show is as much the Jerome Robbins choreography as the terrific score by Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (in his first Broadway job).

The show features a young cast; Ewoldt’s Maria looks good and has a nice but not a true soprano voice. She strained on the high notes of the first act but acquitted herself much better in the second, where the register is lower.

Harris has a good voice but lacks the looks of a Tony. Close your eyes and you’ll be happy.

Michelle Aravena’s Anita, Maria’s fireball cousin, is consistently the best singer and dancer.

Opening night was plagued by sound problems. An unidentified series of popping noises came from the vicinity of the pit at one point. It seemed not everyone was miked, at least not at sufficient levels. That combined with mushy diction left many audience members in the dark too much of the time.

In addition, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s translation of some of the lines and songs into Spanish is not indicated in the program, lending another note of confusion to the proceedings.

But with all its problems, “West Side Story” is arguably the best American musical ever written, and it’s worth seeing for that alone.

The details

“West Side Story” plays through Sunday, Jan. 9, at San Diego Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street.

Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 570-1100 or Ticketmaster (800) 982-2787.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.