unspecifiedBy Manning Harris

Book by Arthur Laurents; music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. If you were looking for an impressive pedigree in the creation of a musical play, you couldn’t find any loftier thoroughbreds than these four artists. They sat down as young men in 1957 and created the greatest fusion of music, dance, and drama that has ever graced a stage or screen.

Atlanta Lyric Theatre is currently running a brilliant version of this legendary show through June 26; it is directed by Alan Kilpatrick, choreographed by Cindy Mora Reiser (with inspiration from Robbins’ original work), and music direction by Eric Alexander, who also conducts a fine pit orchestra; and assistant musical direction by Chris Brent Davis. A shoutout to Jeff Macko—terrific drums.

If you’re not familiar with “West Side Story,” this “jukebox Manhattan opera,” as one critic ecstatically called the original Broadway production, fret not. Think Romeo and Juliet amidst the street gang violence of the Jets (the “homegrown” Americans) and the Sharks (from Puerto Rico) in late 1950’s New York. Think of such Bernstein-Sondheim classics as “Tonight,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and many more. “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.” The show is at once joyous, vibrant, and heartbreakingly tragic.

And think love! Arthur Laurents said, “This is a story of love that cannot survive in a world of bigotry and violence.” The central love story is that of Tony (Tim Quartier) and Maria (Katie Mariko Murray), but Laurents said the entire production is motivated by love, beginning with the first scene between longtime best friends Tony and Riff (Nathan Lubeck). If Tony “loves him like a brother” and Riff is willing to die for him, their relationship must be carefully established for the tragic story to work. Of course Tony and Maria’s passion for each other must be so intense that they blind themselves to the danger around them, especially Tony.

But in a desperate moment late in the play, Maria laments, “It’s not us; it’s everything around us.” She’s right. She knows her brother Bernardo (Chase Peacock), leader of the Sharks, is dead serious about the fight between the warring gangs; even her friend Anita (Chelsea Belcastro), Bernardo’s girlfriend, cannot convince her otherwise.

The high points of this production are the music and the dancing. As soon as the glorious-voiced Tim Quartier starts musing as Tony that “Something’s Coming,” you realize this production is going to be something special. And when he and Katie Mariko Murray as Maria launch into the thrilling “Tonight” on the fire escape, and she also sings like an angel, and the orchestra is backing them beautifully—well, that’s an iconic moment in musical theatre history and I’ve never heard it done better. I was a goner, tearing up and in musical theatre heaven.

And that’s just one song! There are so many other great moments, both singing and dancing. Jerome Robbins used “street ballet” to advance the plot in a way that dance had never before been used in a musical: the “Prologue,” “Jet Song,” “Dance at the Gym” (a knockout), “America” (also a knockout), and “Cool.”

Chelsea Belcastro’s Anita is a standout, especially in “America” and “A Boy Like That.” Where did the Lyric get these people? Artistic Director Brandt Blocker must have some excellent connections. I do know that Mr. Quartier and Ms. Murray are on loan from New York, but the casting is superb.

Some of the cast: AJ Klopach, Nickolas Eibler, J. Koby Parker, Avery Gillham, Jamey Hoge, Jason Cohen, Fenner Eaddy, Hayley Platt (remember Anybodys?), Matthew Morris, Nolan Martin, Leticia Chavez, Alexis Bruza, Chaney Maisonet, and John Schmedes. For the complete cast, consult the program.

A caveat for devotees of the classic 1961 film (10 Oscars, thank you): a couple of numbers are in different spots in the live show—not to worry. And the ending is still very powerful; enough said.

There are a few moments where the actors’ concentration falters just a tad; one cannot rely solely on that fabled music and dancing. Every moment counts.

But “West Side Story” has always held magic for me; Atlanta Lyric’s production is a rare opportunity to see it done superbly. I wouldn’t miss it.

For tickets and information, visit atlantalyrictheatre.com.

Manning Harris

Manning Harris is the theatre critic for Atlanta Intown.