Theater Review: 'West Side Story' sharp as a switchblade

Michelle Alves and Michael Spencer Smith and company. ©Amy Boyle Photography

Michelle Alves and Michael Spencer Smith and company. ©Amy Boyle Photography

MaryJoanna Grisso and Jarrad Biron Green. .©Amy Boyle Photography

MaryJoanna Grisso and Jarrad Biron Green. .©Amy Boyle Photography

The splendid production of “West Side Story” at the Orpheum bursts with grace, power and freshness. And that’s saying something, Daddy-O, because it’s more than half a century old.

But when Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original production, updated it for the musical’s 2009 Broadway revival, he made some crucial changes.

Gone were some of the sweeter elements that didn’t age well. Added in was more grit and edgier violence. And now several of the passages and parts of songs are in Spanish.

The changes are significant, but not sweeping — the touch of a thoughtful artist.

And the payoff is terrific. What is left undisturbed is the brilliance of the story, the music by Leonard Bernstein, the choreography by Jerome Robbins and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Meanwhile, the production itself sizzles with spot-on performances.

As Maria, tiny MaryJoanna Grisso embues the ideal of hope and love and backs it up with a big, gorgeous voice and a truly moving performance.

Jarrad Biron Green brings the requisite passion and vocal skill to the role of Tony and makes some beautiful chemistry with Grisso’s Maria.

When Michelle Alves appears on stage, you can’t take your eyes off her, even with so much else to look at in the busy scenes. Her explosive Anita dances and sings with wondrous magnetism.

There are so many musicals that have grabbed some staying power by getting a few elements right. Not many of them can touch “West Side Story,” however, which is elevated by Bernstein’s compositions and Sondheim’s lyrics — and there’s not a weak number in the bunch.

As for the choreography, it would be near impossible to improve on the groove that Robbins established with muscular leaps, kicks and fight acrobatics.

The Orpheum season got off to a shaky start with a limp production of “Flashdance” and a thoroughly unmemorable take of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.” It’s been redeemed by the vigor and beauty of this version of “West Side Story” that will likely leave you with chills and tears.

“West Side Story”

The Orpheum, 203 S. Main St. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20-$90. More information: 901-525-3000 and

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.