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Girls of ‘West Side Story’ steal the show

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 11:46 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 11:58 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES — On opening night of the Des Moines Civic Center’s Willis Broadway Series 2012 season, the colors and contrasts of 1950s New York were alive and well in the revival of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story.”

The traveling cast of this comedic tragedy, inspired by William Shakespeare’s unattainable romance in “Romeo and Juliet,” give an energetic and emotional performance as the rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets.

The story centers around the love affair between the white, working class teen Tony, played by Ross Lekites, and the young Puerto Rican immigrant Maria, played by Evy Ortiz. Although torn by loyalty between the feuding factions of the Puerto Rican Sharks and the native New Yorker Jets, Tony is stricken by the beauty and genuine air of Maria. Tony is at odds with his former gang, the Sharks, and Maria defies her brother Bernardo and friend Anita by entering into a secret romance with Tony. The unlikely couple are able to see past the cultural differences and racial tensions that divide their family and friends, but their relationship ultimately becomes a martyr to end the bloodshed.

Jet gang leader Riff, played by Drew Foster, and Shark point man Bernardo, played by German Santiago, both give strong vocal and dance performances, including the iconic knife fight that ends the first act. As an ensemble, the three- and four-part harmonies of the Shark and Jet choruses were tight, and their dynamic sync with the live “West Side Story” orchestra made for a smooth and engaging flow throughout the numbers.

But individually it was the women of “West Side Story” who stole the show. Performing the musical’s well known motif “Tonight,” Ortiz displayed her skills as a powerful soprano able to make her presence known on stage yet blend well with the tenor vocals of Lekites. Anita, played by Michelle Aravena, was able to perform rapid Latin dance while maintaining powerful vocals, and she led the four-part harmonies on “America,” another of “West Side’s” memorable tunes, with the other female cast members with precision.

Continuing its focus on enhancing the Des Moines area’s and Iowa’s growing cultural scene, the Civic Center employs Iowa musicians to complement the traveling Broadway cast. Conducted by John O’Neill, the predominantly local players of the “West Side Story” orchestra executed the Tony Award winning score by blending the Latin jazz elements with traditional stage musical melodies seamlessly.

“West Side Story” continues its run tonight through Sunday at the Civic Center in downtown Des Moines. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. tonight through Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Due to mature content, the show is recommended for audience members age 13 and up.

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