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West Side Story's Ali Ewoldt and Kyle Harris

By Rady Ananda

Arthur Laurents’ story about love, racism and violence set in 1950s New York City took on a new twist under the direction of David Saint in Broadway Across America’s Ft. Lauderdale production of West Side Story. By making subtle changes (from the 1961 film version starring Natalie Wood), Saint softens the criticism of US racism and salutes same-sex love.

When I first saw the film as a teen, the song “America” shocked me with its blunt lines, “Life is all right in America … if you are white in America.” Given our media-fostered culture of anti-Arab sentiment, I looked forward to hearing those words again. Instead, under Saint’s direction, the song mocked Puerto Rico. “Twelve in a room in America” became San Juan’s burden.

And it wasn’t like I misheard it – the volume of Broward Center’s speakers required me to plug my ears several times throughout the performance. The temperature was comfortably warm for me, which means most Floridians roasted in the venue.

The other significant change, which my straight companions missed, occurred during “Somewhere” (There’s a Place for Us), sung by the entire ensemble and finishing as a Tony-Maria duet. While the lights faded, couples joined hands as they moved off stage – but one couple was female.

Because of that I could forgive the change from “I feel pretty and witty and gay” to “… pretty and witty and bright.” However, the maltreatment of WSS’s transgendered character, Anybodys, played successfully by Alexandra Frohlinger, remained as harsh as in the film.

Ali Ewoldt, playing the role of Maria, hit the notes, sometimes transforming Leonard Bernstein’s music into near opera. In fact, in one scene she and another Sharks gal amused and delighted us with a duel of high notes.

Her leading man – Kyle Harris playing Tony – missed a couple notes, but otherwise clearly has a beautiful voice, reaching falsetto a couple of times and giving us shivers. His rendition of “Maria” had me streaming tears with the memory of youth’s passion.

WSS broadens the Romeo and Juliet theme by commenting on race, poverty, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, violence and homophobia. That probably explains why many consider this 50-year-old story to be the best Broadway musical of all time. To have tackled such themes in 1961 America speaks volumes about the courage of Arthur Laurents, especially considering his being blacklisted for a time by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Broadway Across America’s West Side Story tour began last year in Detroit and ends Sept. 18 in Costa Mesa, CA. The Ft. Lauderdale show runs through Feb. 27 followed by two more Florida cities: Tampa and West Palm Beach in March, before it heads to New Orleans and beyond.