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'West Side Story' Gets Riveting Encore

New York City Ballet revives lively dances from the classic musical about two rival gangs

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Nikolaj Hbbe is a dancer, not a magician, but that hasn't stopped him from transporting thousands of ticket-holders back in time with a snap of his fingers.

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Hubbe's gesture opened the New York City Ballet's recent exhibition of dances from "West Side Story." It was meant to signal the volatile relationship between two rival gangs - the fabled Sharks and Jets.

But like one of Proust's madeleines, it also triggered countless remembrances of things past. Indeed, the enthusiasm that greeted the opening SNAP! seemed to confirm that the entire audience had either gone to the 1957 Broadway musical or seen the subsequent Hollywood film.

The latest version of this American classic, a 35-minute abridgment called "West Side Story Suite," highlights some of the livelier dance ensembles. Featuring six of the original ballets, plus a new solo set to "Something's Coming," it meets even the highest expectations.

Conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, "West Side Story" is both a tragedy inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and a cautionary tale about cultural intolerance. It's also hilarious.

Yet what sets "West Side Story" apart is neither its classical structure nor its wit, but rather its deft embrace of the vernacular. Bernstein's masterly score, for example, resounds with the vibrancy of the city streets.

Stephen Sondheim injected as much urban slang into his lyrics as a musical comedy can withstand. And Robbins's choreography, tuned to the rhythms of jazz and Latin dance, wants to burst like a Manhattan fire hydrant on a summer day.

'Tonight' cut from the show

Robbins, whose relationship with City Ballet dates back nearly half a century, has stripped these dances of the surrounding dialogue for the company's new "Suite." Not even "Maria" and "Tonight" - show-stopping arias, but short on substantive choreography - make his cut.

Still, "Suite" retains the look and feel of its forebears. Designer Barbara Matera, for example, has reproduced Irene Sharaff's costumes from the stage play. Rosaria Sinisi has recreated Oliver Smith's original scenery. And Arthur Laurents's story line remains roughly intact.

"Prologue" quickly delineates the Sharks from the Jets with a skirmish that is both comical and full of portent. As the gangs scuffle in a graffiti-stained playground, their fortunes rise and fall like schoolchildren on different ends of a seesaw.

Although the encounter ends in a draw, it leaves no doubt that the Sharks and Jets - with their respective leaders, Bernardo (Jock Soto) and Riff (Hubbe) - will meet again.

"Something's Coming," a new dance to an old song, introduces Tony (Robert LaFosse), a former Jet intent on building a better life for himself. While an offstage singer handles the vocals, Tony's slow, dreamy steps give palpable expression to his boundless optimism:

I got a feeling there's a miracle due

Gonna come true

Coming to me....

Tensions mount when he meets Maria (Elena Diner) in "Dance at the Gym." Their tentative duet spells the end of what began in almost friendly competition, with the Sharks doing sultry Latin steps and the Jets falling into a Western line dance.

When Tony and Maria kiss, a brawl seems imminent. But at the sound of a policeman's whistle (an offstage Officer Krupke), the dancers freeze, spread their arms and legs as if being frisked, and bow their heads in an acknowledgment of guilt.

Robbins turns up the heat once more with the smoldering "Cool." The Jets, accompanied by an intermittent fury of horns and percussion, leap in sudden unison and turn with abrupt symmetry in this well-orchestrated ensemble.

Two of the Sharks' Puerto Rican girlfriends (Broadway performers Nancy Ticotin and Natalie Toro) sing and pantomime "America," the wisecracking commentary about the immigrant experience:

Cadillac zoom in America

Industry boom in America

Everything bloom in America

Twelve in a room in America!

Ticotin submits to the music's exaggerated rhythms by rocking her hips, kicking her legs, jiggling her shoulders, and shaking her skirt. Peers clap and cheer her on, chanting "Ay-Ay-Ay!"

"Suite" moves directly from this rumba to the fated "Rumble," where Riff and Bernardo square off with switchblades in a fatal fray. As with the earlier skirmishes, the melee ends with the arrival of the police. But this time Officer Krupke's comical whistle is replaced by the graver medium of a doleful siren and a flashing red light.

Tony and Maria reunite

Tony, like Riff and Bernardo, dies in the original stage and screen productions. Here Robbins skips over that part of the story, and reunites him with Maria in the final "Somewhere Ballet."

Unfortunately, his cuts compress Arthur Laurents's richly textured libretto into a much flatter story. Tony, freed from the emotional consequences of murdering Bernardo, loses much of his psychological depth. And Maria seems largely incidental.

City Ballet's "Suite" is no more a substitute for the full-length version of "West Side Story" than Cliff's Notes are for "Romeo and Juliet." Yet as a showcase for some of the most exciting dances in the history of American music theater, this new production is unparalleled.

* City Ballet performs at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater through June 25. Although the company has already given the last scheduled performance of "West Side Story Suite," it plans to keep the new work in its permanent repertoire.

What sets the musical apart is its deft embrace of the vernacular. Leonard Bernstein's masterly score, for example, resounds with the vigor of city streets.