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Marriott delivers 'West Side Story' the way it was meant to be

Seven Academy Award nominations for Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" this week might prompt audiences to see the big-screen remake in Chicago-area theaters. When the film begins streaming in about 2½ weeks, even more folks will get to see this ever-timely tale of young love unfolding against a backdrop of bigotry and violence.

But when it comes to experiencing the 1957 masterwork by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (music) and Arthur Laurents (book) as director/choreographer Jerome Robbins originally conceived it -- live and in-person -- locals have only one option: Marriott Theatre.

Marriott's revival of the "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired tragedy largely honors Robbins' vision. But director Victor Malana Moag and choreographer Alex Sanchez have made some interesting narrative and choreographic choices, beginning with Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set, which is marked by chain-link panels. Lowered, they make the compact Lincolnshire stage feel like a cage. Trapped inside are the Jets, led by Drew Redington's lean and hungry Riff, and the Sharks, captained by Bernardo (Gary Cooper). Warring over a piece of concrete to call their own, they and their gangs are caught in an endless cycle of violence, the impact of which Moag illustrates with a wrenching final image of young women united in grief, trailing the body of yet another young victim of street violence.

The Lincolnshire theater's in-the-round configuration lends to the musical an intimacy proscenium stage productions lack. As a result, Moag's well-paced production pays off emotionally. Credit also rests with the youthful singer/dancers, many of whom are making their Marriott debuts playing characters not much younger than themselves. Case in point, recent college graduates Lauren Maria Medina and Jake David Smith, who play star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony.

Vocally, they're well-matched. Smith's honeyed tenor is ideally showcased in "Something's Coming" and the rapturous "Maria." Medina sings prettily throughout. But as tragedy transforms her character, her timbre becomes richer and more resonant, culminating in the gloriously operatic "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Love." The soaring duet between Medina's Maria and Vanessa Aurora Sierra's zealously played Anita is among the production's vocal highlights.

Except for Anita, the characters are two-dimensional: the explosive Action (Jonathan Warner), whose hair-trigger temper will surely get someone killed; Chino (Marco Antonio Tzunux), Bernardo's second-in-command who is reasonable and respectful until he isn't; and Marisa Fee's Anybodys, whose belated response to the traumatized Anita suggests she still possesses a smidgen of decency.

If Bernstein's beloved score -- consisting of quiet hymns and lush ballads, modern classical and cool jazz, Latin dances and novelty tunes -- is the track, dance is "West Side Story's" engine. Sanchez, whose work I have long admired, created splendid original choreography that pays homage to Robbins but doesn't duplicate him.

"I followed the established narrative he created, but my approach was to make the dances rougher and athletic," he wrote in an email. "Certain steps may look similar because the steps I used were actual steps that were popular with the kids in the 1950s."

The swinging "Dance at the Gym" featuring the exuberant mambo nearly stopped the show. The tension-filled, bebop infused "Cool" did stop the show. "Somewhere," the achingly lovely dream ballet imagining racial tolerance -- which Sanchez acknowledged as a nod to Agnes DeMille -- nearly moved me to tears.