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'West Side Story': Ready to rumble

Posted 8:27am on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013

The term that keeps coming up is "grittier."

"This is a West Side Story for a new generation," said choreographer Joey McKneely, describing the touring production of that classic musical that moves into Bass Hall for aneight-performance run, beginning Tuesday. "This is not a carbon copy of the original production. This show has a very different look and feel. It is less stereotypically 1950s. It tries to bring more reality to the gangs and has a much grittier feel to it."

Indeed, this new production is edgy enough that Performing Arts Fort Worth, which is presenting the production, felt the need to put the following advisory on the Bass Hall website: " West Side Story is recommended for ages 13+. Please be advised that there is strong language, violence, and some sensitive subject matter that is true to the story and plot. Parental Guidance is suggested."

This touring production was born out of the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book (or story) for the original production. The new production enjoyed more Broadway performances than the 1957 original and the other two revivals.

"Arthur went back and took out some of the references that made it sort of a musical comedy in the 1950s," said David Saint, who directed this touring production. "He felt that the world and theater had changed since then and that people could have it a little less sugarcoated. This love story takes place in a hostile environment of bigotry and violence. The biggest difference is that Arthur wanted it to be a little bit grittier and more hard-hitting."

That 2009 revival, on which Saint served as associate director, also had more Spanish dialogue than the original. But that change has undergone some tweaking.

"It [the Spanish] alienated some of the English-speaking audience because they missed plot points," said McKneely. "But I believe that you do understand the scenes where they speak Spanish. It gives a more authentic feel to the Sharks as a group of Puerto Rican immigrants."

Saint said it took a while to arrive at the right mix of Spanish and English in this production.

"The Spanish was a long process to find the right amount," he said. "We had too much, then too little. And now, hopefully, just the right amount."

But, on the whole, this touring production will reflect that 2009 revival rather than the original.

"It's a little bit tricky because this production is based on the production Arthur did on Broadway," said Saint, who was so closely associated with Laurents that he was named executor of his estate when he died in 2011. "I have some freedom, but I also want to stay true to Arthur's vision. But I feel I knew Arthur well enough that I know what he considered most important."

McKneely was in much the same situation. He re-created the original choreography of Jerome Robbins for this production.

"[The choreography] is still 99 percent Jerome Robbins. There is just a little tweaking," said McKneely, who had worked with late choreographer. "It's about keeping it very emotional and keeping the level of dance as high as possible. I really try to bring the intensity and work ethic he brought to the material."

But rather than feeling hemmed in by Robbins' blueprint, McKneely found his task to be a joy.

"I'm really passing it down directly from the creator. It is so exciting to teach this material to young dancers and young actors, and watch how they blossom in front of my eyes. When I exposed these levels of emotions to the dancers and tell them you can dance to these emotions, I am amazed at how they soak it up and how they are so grateful to be given an opportunity to do such magnificent material. And it does change their lives," said the New Orleans native.

For Saint, the production provides a way to honor the memory of Laurents.

"This is the man who wrote the books to two of what many consider to be the greatest musicals ever written: West Side Story and Gypsy. He is probably the smartest man I ever met," said Saint, who has directed 11 Laurents-penned shows.

And being in possession of Laurents' personal papers has brought some goose-bump-inducing moments, such as the time he opened an old piano bench to find a yellowing piece of paper bearing a song and the notation, "To Arthur, This is a good one Daddy-O. Love, Lenny."

But given the enduring appeal of this musical, legendary maestro Leonard Bernstein might have talking about the entire show.

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