‘West Side Story’ comes to the Stranahan for six shows

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  • Michelle Alves’ resume includes dancing onstage with some of today’s big, of-the-moment performers: Shakira, the Black Eyed Peas, Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull, and Ricky Martin.

    Now Alves is going back to the 1950s. She’s dancing — and singing and acting too — in one of the classics of the theater, West Side Story, a show that first appeared on Broadway in 1957. She is one of the stars in the touring production of the legendary musical, which is coming to the Stranahan Theater for six performances beginning Thursday.

    West Side Story was created by masters of the musical theater: The book was by Arthur Laurents; Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, the lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins was the choreographer and the director. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, the show, set in the mid-1950s, tells the story of young lovers Tony and Maria, who are caught up in the violence of two rival gangs, the Sharks, many of whom are newly arrived from Puerto Rico, and the Jets. The gangs’ battle for control of their blue-collar neighborhood on New York City’s Upper West Side has tragic consequences for Tony, who had been a Jet, and Maria, who was aligned with the Sharks.

    Nearly 60 years after it premiered, West Side Story remains relevant. “All the problems we touch on in the show, like immigration, racism, gangs ... those are things we’re still dealing with,” Alves said in a telephone interview. She portrays Anita, who works in a bridal shop with Maria and is the girlfriend of Maria’s brother, Bernardo, a leader of the Sharks.

    MaryJoanna and Jarrad Biron Green in ‘West Side Story.’
    MaryJoanna and Jarrad Biron Green in ‘West Side Story.’

    Alves is a dancer, singer, actress and choreographer born and raised in Puerto Rico. She started her professional dancer career at the age of 16, traveling around the world with the World Salsa Congress and many Latin American singers.

    Anita is her dream role, Alves said. “I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, so I really can identify with this character; we are[both] very passionate, very energetic, we’re full of intensity. Anita left her people and left a beautiful island to look for a better future. And I did the same thing,” adding that she left her family [in Puerto Rico], and her friends, and everything she had to move to New York to pursue her dream.

    “I see Michelle Alvas in Anita, and I can see Anita in Michelle. It’s a wonderful thing, it’s amazing to be able to do this every night,” Alves said.

    When it opened in 1957, West Side Story broke new theatrical ground. Jerome Robbins’ expressive choreography used the language of dance to tell its story as much as the music and the dialogue did. The show opens with Robbins’ now-famous “Prologue,” not a glitzy production number, but a dance number that brings home the frustration and hatred of the rival gangs.

    Jerome Robbins was a genius, Alves said. “We are blessed to be doing his dance moves. Jerome Robbins tried to transform every single line into a dance move. Every dance movement gives a message to the audience.”

    And West Side Story’s style was darker than audiences of that time expected from a musical.

    “Everything in West Side Story is of a piece,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in his 1957 New York Times review. “Everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy and anguish.”

    Michelle Alves portrays Anita in the musical.
    Michelle Alves portrays Anita in the musical.

    The touring production coming to Toledo is based on the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story, directed by Laurents, and is described in press materials as a “tougher, more real production” to carry its timeless themes from 1957 to today. “The Puerto Rican characters sometimes sing and speak in Spanish, which not only gives them more authenticity, but reflects the sounds of New York City today,” according to press materials.

    The show features the Robbins choreography, reproduced by Joey McKneely, and the Bernstein and Sondheim score, which includes such classic numbers as Something’s Coming, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty, and Somewhere.

    Alves says that when they are performing and the audience is [seated] close to the stage, cast members sometimes can hear people humming along with the numbers. “Those songs stick like glue, they’ll stay with your forever,” she said.

    Michelle Alves and Michael Spencer Smith share a scene.
    Michelle Alves and Michael Spencer Smith share a scene.

    West Side Story will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Stranahan Theater,4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets range from $68-$28 and are available from 419-381-8851,, or the box office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

    Contact Sue Brickey at