Take the story of "Romeo and Juliet," mix in some Puerto Rican blood, the streets of New York City in the 1950s and some of the most recognizable music that musical theater has to offer, and you've got "West Side Story" — the Tony Award-winning musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and an up and comer at the time, Stephen Sondheim.
The tragic love story aside, half of the show is centered on a cast of characters who made the trip from the tropical island of Puerto Rico to the pulsating island of Manhattan.
"I completely understand, I did the same thing," said actress Michelle Alves, who plays the fiery Anita, friend to doomed lover Maria.
"I was born and raised in Puerto Rico; I completely understand the whole concept. She moved away looking for a better future and to makes her dreams come true, and I did the same thing."
Alves has traveled extensively with her professional dancing career since college. "Two years ago, I picked up from Puerto Rico and moved to New York and started auditioning. I wanted to give it a chance to do a big Broadway musical. It helps me understand my character — I moved from my beautiful little island, just like Anita, and it's made my dreams come true."
In Alves' case, her dream and Anita go hand in hand. "I've been dreaming about this character since I first saw the show when I was 5 years old," she said. "It's my dream role. It's the biggest character on Broadway, I think, and the biggest masterpiece in musical theater."
And she may not be far off. With its soaring score and grittier elements, the musical ushered in a new era of musical theater — seeing numerous revivals and productions and tours spanning the globe.
“West Side Story” also added extended dance scenes throughout the tale of angst in the streets. As New York Times dance editor John Martin said, “the drama of ‘West Side Story’ lies not so much in talked plot but in moving bodies.” Jerome Robbins, who won the Tony Award for choreography, powerful concepts for the musical, created a new level of storytelling. For the national tour, these original moves are being reproduced by Tony Award nominee Joey McKneely.
“It’s so much work and it never gets easier,” Alves said. “Jerome Robbins’ choreography to this musical is the greatest, and Joey, who was friends with Robbins, is working us to make sure we get it right. But we need to catch our breath every single night.
“And people are loving it,” she said. “I stand in the wings every night when Tony and Maria sing ‘Tonight,’ and I fall in love with them every night. So does the audience — the music is amazing. When I sing ‘America,’ I can hear people singing along.
“It makes me homesick every time,” she said when asked about the popular tune that playfully compares Puerto Rico to America. “I’m not gonna lie, it makes me homesick — I miss my island. I miss my people.”
But being able to draw on the experience of her family helped Alves bring a stronger Anita to the stage. “I mean I wasn’t alive when the show is set but I call and talk to my family and they’ll tell me what it was really like and I can bring that to the stage every night.”
If you go:
What: "West Side Story," national tourComment on this story
When: April 16-21, times vary
Where: Capitol Theatre
How much: $32.50-$62.50