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A slightly retooled 'West Side Story' arrives in Tucson

In the classic musical West Side Story, dance is easily the equal of the music.

"It's a dancer's musical," says Mario Di Vetta, of Broadway in Tucson, which is bringing a traveling production of the 2009 Broadway revival to town.

From the dramatic opening scene, the Prologue, with young men dancing out their anger on the mean streets of New York, dance tells the story. An adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a contemporary tragedy in which race divides the lovers. "I Feel Pretty" tells of a young woman's longing. "America" is an examination of inequality in the Promised Land.

Most knowledgeable theater audiences know that the show's superb music was created by Leonard Bernstein. The lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, the decorated Broadway veteran who's turned out a score of award-winning shows. But it's less-well-known that the choreographer, Jerome Robbins, was of the same exalted rank.

One of the 20th century's most-honored ballet choreographers, Robbins danced as a young man with American Ballet Theatre. Later, as a choreographer, he worked side by side with George Balanchine at New York City Ballet, composing such beloved ballets as "Dances at a Gathering" and "Fancy Free." He was equally adept at creating dances for Broadway, where his string of credits includes The King and I, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof.

West Side Story's book was written by Arthur Laurents, but it was Robbins who had the original idea. He not only choreographed the original 1957 production, winning a Tony Award; he directed. He also co-directed the 1961 film.

Robbins died in 1998. For the 2009 revival, the creative team turned to Joey McNeely, a choreographer who had danced for Robbins in his last show, 1989's Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Laurents asked him to make some changes to freshen up the dancing.

The idea of tampering with Robbins' work is alarming, but Di Vetta says the show conserves the "classic choreography, seen with a new set of eyes."

Bonus for Tucsonans: 2008 UA theater arts grad Kyle Harris takes on the lead role of Tony.

More by Margaret Regan

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