Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 | 10:30 p.m.
It’s difficult to imagine that when “West Side Story” was conceived more than 50 years ago, it was deemed an impossible project by critics and the theater community alike: Its music was considered too operatic and challenging for the stage, its choreography too complex, its plot too depressing.
And yet, it’s just those components that have gone on to embed “West Side Story” in America’s cultural vocabulary, setting a paradigm for all great musicals to follow.
It’s perhaps because of this iconic status that meeting the standards of the original stage adaptation has often proved to be a Sisyphean battle for the theater companies who have since attempted the show: “West Side Story” is a difficult production to take on because it’s a wheel that doesn’t need to be reinvented, and yet adhering too closely to the original can result in a show that falls flat.
The no-man’s-land of this dilemma is where Troika Entertainment’s touring production of “West Side Story” faltered during its strong but ultimately forgettable debut Tuesday night at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
Director David Saint attempted a delicate hand when straddling the line between originality and the production’s roots, letting the set, lighting and costume teams take creative liberties while the actors and orchestra let the work of Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim speak for itself.
Rather than build elaborate brick walls and fire escapes, set designer James Youmans brought a wonderfully minimal, graphic take on 1950s New York that tipped a hat to the show’s original poster print. With sparsely placed set pieces, Youmans relied largely on shadow, line and bright color blocking to give the illusion of intimate bedrooms and sprawling skyscrapers alike on the Reynolds Hall stage and to echo the emotions of the scenes being played out before them.
The same creative license worked less well for David C. Woolard’s costume design. His focus on color over elaborate styling was a nice complement to the set design -- violet pieces for the Sharks, orange armbands and scarves for the Jets -- but the looks were ultimately underwhelming; in basics like high-waisted shorts, gauzy summer dresses and what can only be described as “dad jeans,” the cast could’ve just easily been performing a scene from the 1980s or ’90s.
Woolard may have kept things simple to allow for some literal wiggle room: The cast proved to be masters of the choreography, at once elegant and spontaneous in their leaps and kicks. Numbers like “Gee, Officer Krupke” and the climactic knife fight offered moments of genuine chemistry between the cast that didn’t just entertain but captured your emotions.
Similarly, the casting of the main characters lent itself well to onstage chemistry. Michelle Alves rose above the rest as Anita, performing with a nuance and humor that make the character’s signature fiery persona relatable, and not like the caricature a lesser actor’s performance might be. Mary Joanna Grisso as Maria also shined, and her harmonies with Addison Reid Coe (Tony) induced shivers.
All too often, however, the cast’s collectively pristine vocal talent was overwhelmed by the orchestra, whose performance was so clean and mechanical that it was almost like listening to a pre-recorded track. (Part of this might be due in part to the fact that The Smith Center’s sound system is not amplified, and thus the two musical elements have to compete over each other.)
In “West Side Story,” being technically outstanding is not enough. The parts may be challenging, but it’s ultimately emotional conviction that drives them, and this might be the company’s biggest shortcoming. The orchestra lacked the story’s rawness and urgency, and even the talented cast was never completely able to transcend the feeling of giving a performance.
Troika’s rendition of the classic musical is an entertaining, well-tempered interpretation of the original, but in its attempt to balance innovation with tradition, the show’s most dynamic element -- passion -- was too often lost in the background.
Tickets for “West Side Story” at The Smith Center through Sunday are sold out.