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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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In Overture Hall, West Side Story brims with guts, grit and gorgeous dancing
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Dance moves translate hatred into physical expressions.
Credit:Troika Entertainment

West Side Story broke numerous rules when it debuted on Broadway in 1957. Opening with an emotionally charged dance number was unheard of, and closing on a somber note was almost as unconventional. Troika Entertainment's revival (through Feb. 17 at Overture Hall) pushes the envelope even further.

Inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, this musical about two warring street gangs -- the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Polish-American Jets -- is a classic love story. Set on New York's Upper West Side in the 1950s, it's a gritty portrait of the fear that lies beneath prejudice. It's a tale about sources of violence, from broken homes to misguided attempts at asserting one's autonomy. It's also proof that dance can be both a weapon and a teaching tool.

Even if the singing and acting don't thrill you, Jerome Robbins' stunning choreography (reproduced here by Joey McKneely) will. The story begins with a gang brawl. Dance moves translate hatred into physical expressions. Fighters leapfrog over each other and dive onto the floor with athletic grace. Sharp kicks slice through the air, and whirling jumps are reminiscent of spinning daggers. Later in the first act, a fiery mambo lights up the stage with swishing skirts and steps timed so precisely they could double as a military drill. In contrast, a ballet set to Leonard Bernstein's soaring ballad "Somewhere" creates a dream sequence that illuminates the hopeful love that binds Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso), a beautiful young woman who's just arrived from Puerto Rico, and Tony (Addison Reid Coe), an ex-Jet with a soft heart.

This production also adds bursts of Spanish to Arthur Laurents' script. Maria speaks Spanish until her brother's girlfriend, Anita (the exceptional Michelle Alves), demands that she practice English. In the second act, Maria sings the first line of "I Feel Pretty" in English before switching to "Me Siento Hermosa" in the next. The overall effect is the sort of Spanglish one often hears in modern-day New York, but with lots more singing and old-timey words like "hoodlum."

Many Sharks revert to Spanish when they are extremely upset, like when Maria's brother, Bernardo (Andrés Acosta), finds her dancing cheek-to-cheek with Tony. Audience members who don't know Spanish are forced to read body language and other context clues. On opening night, "Vamos!" came with a finger frantically pointed at an exit, indicating that the word means "let's go," and a Spanish-challenged dance chaperone translated "muchacho" and "muchacha" during a hilariously awkward English lesson. But other phrases demanded more patience. If you view musicals as an opportunity to learn, you'll be delighted. But if you want the story's emotions to travel directly to your heart, not filter through your brain, you may feel a bit frustrated.

No matter how you feel about the Spanish dialogue, it adds an element of realism to the production. Watching strangers converse in an unfamiliar language can provoke anxiety. It's easy to worry that you're being gossiped about, or that you're not getting the full story if you request a translation. You relinquish some power to frame the narrative, which can lead to feelings of anger, resentment and discomfort. The show's moments of language immersion may generate empathy for the Jets, who are grappling with fear, and sympathy for the Sharks, who are trying to maintain their cultural identity in a sea of racial slurs and new vocabulary words.

Though the Spanish dialogue may not be clear, Grisso's voice certainly is. Her crystalline soprano sounds bell-like, even at the top of its register, in songs like "Tonight." Coe has obviously spent time developing his upper register, but he was hard to hear during some of the company numbers on Tuesday evening. And while he makes Tony kind and likable, it's hard to believe this character used to be a marauding street tough. In some of the most romantic scenes, the couple's chemistry fizzles. At their worst moments, they seemed like they've taken the advice of the dance chaperone, who begs his charges to think of one another as brothers and sisters, not prospective sex partners.

Luckily, the set, costumes and lighting make Tony and Maria's interactions look magical. The Sharkettes' skirts sport bold, angry colors in the tension-filled gym dance, then switch to soft pastels for the dream sequence. Fights take place in dark alleys, or behind screens that look like chain-link fences. But embraces happen under heavenly white rays, suggesting that the difference between lovers and fighters is like night and day.

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