‘West Side Story’ starring Elisabeth Moss and Danielle Brooks – in pictures

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Die-hard fans of the 1960s musical were reassured that it wouldn’t be bare-bones like the 2013 film version but a stand-out production of its kind since the founding of La Jolla Playhouse in 1953

‘West Side Story’ reimagines the original in Steven Spielberg’s vibrant showcase for its stars

“It’s a big dress rehearsal,” director Harvey Fierstein says of his ensemble staging of West Side Story. “We’re still tinkering and fine-tuning.”

West Side Story’ starring Elisabeth Moss and Danielle Brooks – in pictures Read more

Perhaps. The revival on stage at San Diego’s Old Globe, opening on Friday, is an impressive piece of large-scale theatrical production. Only four months in the making, it’s a huge break from the 2013 movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman.

After a tiny opening run in 1998, the show has been remounted several times since. So far, it’s been hailed by critics as the clearest answer to the musical’s enduring popularity and among the most affecting to date, providing a colorful, inventive showcase for its stars, Chris Diamantopoulos and Laura Michelle Kelly.

Co-producers Fierstein and Steppenwolf Theatre Company artistic director Martha Lavey, who were together at a graduation ceremony, nearly a decade ago dreamed of reimagining the neglected American classic.

Diamantopoulos plays Tony, Tony Jr, and Lorio, half of the self-consciously overgrown action figure duo. Each evening, the cast composed a Hispanic-inflected dance style to become a playful touch on the original style.

An opening night performance at the Old Globe in San Diego. Photograph: Brian Ach/AP

“It’s a traditional dance from Puerto Rico called kamba and we’re all doing it,” Fierstein said. “We’re merging the traditional Puerto Rican dance with the American style.”

Each actor brings their own takes to a theatrical idiom untouched by James Goldman’s original book and lyrics and the 1956 film, about two rival gangs fighting on the mean streets of 1950s New York.

“This is a production that I think follows the original production pretty faithfully,” said Tony Award winner Jayne Houdyshell, who plays Maria. “The plot is not really separated. It’s in each of the two bodies of characters and the themes that change, so I don’t feel that this is a cutting-edge version.”

Lavey said that the show “reflects the total American experience”.

“If you were a Puerto Rican, you experienced oppression. If you were a Puerto Rican, you experienced violence,” she said. “If you were African American, you experienced racial strife and violence.”

Fleerstein, credited as an original co-author, said of his original libretto: “It’s certainly worthy of the consideration of every artist who thinks there is something to the story.”

The cast of West Side Story dance. Photograph: Brian Ach/AP

He said he agrees with the film’s love story about a young man and woman (played here by performers of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, respectively).

“They’re finding something of themselves that they never knew. And that is exactly what we’re going through,” Fierstein said.

The artistic team also decided to embrace the lively drumming of the original score, which has become the show’s signature and a focus of San Diego audiences, who pick up percussion in the “canned goods” collection at open gate before the show begins.

“And the girl who plays Maria is also the percussionist,” said Diamantopoulos. “All she ever does is percussion.”

Spielberg is credited as an associate producer for his hand in the staging, which runs until 18 August.

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