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Jets, Sharks get ready to rumble in CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s 'West Side Story'

CENTERVILLE — “Tonight,” “America,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Maria” are among the infectious and heart-rending melodies CenterPoint Legacy Theatre is fine-tuning for its upcoming production of “West Side Story,” which runs June 20-July 18.

But unlike in most musicals, it’s the dancing that has been known to sometimes steal the show.

“‘West Side Story’ has been credited as a musical that often requires dancers to tell the story through movement rather than words,” said the show’s choreographer, Kelley Richardson. Despite this, it’s commonly the dancing that gets the most dramatic makeovers in productions because the original choreography — rooted in ballet — proves too stylistic and difficult.

Richardson didn’t want this production to be another “West Side Story” dance casualty. As she painstakingly resurrected Jerome Robbins’ famous steps for the upcoming production in Centerville, adhering strictly to his original 1957 choreography, she crossed her fingers that cast members would be up to snuff.

“The dancing is intense and athletic. We were reluctant but ready to make strong adaptations in case the cast couldn’t meet the demand,” Richardson said. But her worries were assuaged after she began working with what she calls “an amazing group of professional dancers,” many of whom boast complementary disciplines including gymnastics, acrobatics and cheerleading, to name a few.

One of humanity’s greatest love stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” has been reimagined for modern times again and again. Yet “West Side Story,” the heralded 20th-century adaptation of doomed love amidst rival gangs, has probably experienced the farthest reach. Revivals of the smash hit pop up every season in every place, paying homage not only to a masterful tale but also to the 20th-century masters of script, song and dance who helped create it.

“The production team really tried to keep to the integrity of the original show,” cast member Jillian Joy said. “You don’t have to make ‘West Side Story’ modern and edgy to make it just as relevant.”

Joy, who plays the spitfire and sassy Anita — Maria’s closest friend and lead Sharks girl — is referring to modern interpretations bent on updating it to including hip-hop, rap, 21st-century gangsters or songs sung in Spanish.

“Although we’re adding our own personality, we think the show speaks for itself,” Joy said.

The New York City Ballet director’s choreographic style was grounded in ballet, but it infused cool jazz and avant-garde experimentalism as well as street style. A master of character dance, Robbins worked on a string of hits, from “The King and I” to “Fiddler On the Roof” to, most famously, “West Side Story,” all of which earned him the reputation of being a perfectionist.

In a 2013 Baltimore Symphony roundtable program featuring three members from the original 1961 film cast, Harry Evens (Mouth Piece from the Jets) revealed just how demanding and taxing Robbins’ choreography could be.

According to Evens, when the “Cool” routine was finally wrapped, the strain on the dancers from all the double knee turns had been so great that they burned their rehearsal kneepads outside his office to ensure they wouldn't have to do another take. Robbins was known throughout his career as a harsh taskmaster.

Though “West Side Story” is just shy of its 60th anniversary, Richardson finds the choreography just as challenging by modern standards.

“Even the slightest movement is accounted for,” she said, mentioning her astonishment with Robbins’ notes, which were given to CenterPoint’s production team when it purchased the rights to the show.

It’s not just stunt work or even the technical dance that presents challenges, Richardson said.

“What looks pedestrian and spontaneous is actually carefully crafted; that can be just as demanding in its own way,” she said. She hopes the attention to detail will not only entertain audiences but also pay tribute to a production that has touched audiences for decades.

Content advisory: According to a news release from CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, “West Side Story” contains mild language and mild innuendo as well as murder and romance. The theater recommends the show for ages 8 and up.

If you go …

What: “West Side Story”

When: June 20-July 18, 7:30 p.m., with 2:30 p.m. Saturday matinees

Where: CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, 525 N. 400 West, Centerville

How much: $19.50-$24.50

Phone: 801-298-1302