Theater Review: A Stylistic, Stripped-Down ‘West Side Story’ Opens North Carolina Theatre’s Season

Sometimes a less is more approach in theater can be more effective than a lavish production. Such is the case with North Carolina Theatre’s production of West Side Story.

West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and was nominated for six Tony Awards. Featuring a classic score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Since then, there have been two Broadway revivals of West Side Story, with a third scheduled to open later this year. A new movie adaptation, directed by Steven Spielberg, is scheduled for release next year.

Zach Adkins and Addie Morales star in this production as Tony and Maria. From the moment Adkins opens his mouth to sing the first notes of Something’s Coming, it is clear that he is fully in command. His almost too-good-to-be-true vocals are controlled and smooth and he sails through the show’s most melodic numbers, including Maria and Tonight. Morales’ ability to communicate her character’s arc with such clarity is not only a testament to her experience with the role having played the part multiple times on multiple stages, but also demonstrates a maturity beyond her years. Notable too are strong performances by a fiery Michelle Alves as Anita and Stephen Diaz’s straight-up portrayal of Bernardo.

Much of West Side Story is told through dance. Alves, Diaz, and the Jets and Sharks ensemble breeze across the stage with skill and precision. Show choreographer Jeremy Dumont has reproduced much of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, which will satisfy purists, although this production doesn’t quite feel like another rehashing of the Romeo and Juliet story. In fact, this production, under the direction of North Carolina Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Eric Woodall, has an ultra-modern, almost film noir quality to it.

A minimalist set, monochromatic color palette, dramatic lighting, and symbolic staging strip the show to its core. It’s not a love story but an American story about race and bigotry, and that is the story Woodall is clearly passionate about telling. Dream ballet sequences imagine a world wherein understanding, acceptance, and even love trumps hate juxtaposed with the harsh realities of what feels like present-day. To drive the show’s moral message home even further, the authors and owners are donating the entire proceeds they receive for this production to Equality North Carolina.

The only thing that dates this version of West Side Story is a word or two found in Arthur Laurents’ book. Other than that, this “street” could be located almost anywhere in any time period, and that is the beauty and timelessness of the show.

This is the first show in a full season of shows that North Carolina Theatre is producing locally. And if this show is any indication of the quality of productions coming down the pike, the future is bright.

The North Carolina Theatre production of West Side Story runs through October 20th at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit https://nctheatre.com/ or the RDU on Stage Performing Arts Calendar.

To hear more about what Eric Woodall and NCT CEO Elizabeth Doran have to say about building a show from scratch, listen to Ep. 32 of the RDU on Stage podcast.

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