Stage & Dance

In Lexington theater’s ‘West Side Story,’ one thing is clear: Don’t mess with Anita

Watch ‘West Side Story’ cast rehearse ‘America’

Michelle Alves and the cast of “West Side Story” rehearse before Lexington Theatre Company’s production at the Lexington Opera House.
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Michelle Alves and the cast of “West Side Story” rehearse before Lexington Theatre Company’s production at the Lexington Opera House.

Of all the great parts in “West Side Story,” the legendary Broadway musical about two teenage lovers kept apart by warring street gangs in New York City in the 1950s, the greatest — surprisingly, given that it’s technically a supporting role — is that of Anita.

It’s Anita, the Puerto Rican firebrand at the center of the Act One showstopper “America,” who understands the dangers Maria is risking by falling in love with Tony, a white boy. It’s Anita who, in Act Two, recognizes the unstoppable power of that love and moves to aid it, only to pay a terrible price for doing so. And it’s Anita, shattered and vengeful, who brings the show to its still-shocking, still-tragic conclusion.

In the original 1957 Broadway production, the role helped launch the Broadway stardom of Chita Rivera; Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her performance in the 1961 film adaptation.

In the Lexington Theatre Company’s production, opening Thursday at the Lexington Opera House, Anita is being brought to vivid, vivacious life by Michelle Alves.

Alves, a triple-threat actor-singer-dancer and native of Puerto Rico who has played Anita in eight previous productions including a national tour, still attacks every performance — every rehearsal, even — with a ferocity that sends an unmistakable message.

Don’t mess with Anita.

Award-winning performer Michelle Alves brings ferocity and excitement to the role of Anita in the Lexington Theatre Company’s production of “West Side Story” at the Lexington Opera House. Kevin Nance

“It’s a heavy feeling on my shoulders,” Alves admits in an interview between rehearsals at Artworks at the Carver School last week. “It’s a challenge for me as an actor to go from playing a woman who’s enjoying herself in Act One to a woman who suffers, who goes through so much pain, in Act Two — and then finishes the show in such a dramatic way. It’s really hard. But I enjoy that, too.”

Even talking about the role, surrounded by the cast and crew around a table, her voice vibrates with the passion she harnesses for the part.

“I’ve done the show nine times and I still get nervous, but that’s the beauty of it,” says Alves, who won regional theater awards for playing Anita in 2013 in Los Angeles and in 2017 in Boston. “I’m going to be connected, I’m going to be involved, I’m going to be IN it, every single night. Because this show does that to you, and to the audience as well.”

Michelle Alves (left) rehearses the musical number “America” with cast members at Artworks at the Carver School. The show opens Thursday and runs to Sunday at the Lexington Opera House. Kevin Nance

Rehearsing “America” for The Lex — “I like to be in America! / O.K. by me in America! / Ev’rything free in America! / For a small fee in America!” — Alves is a dynamo: face flushed, eyes blazing, hair flying, spitting out Stephen Sondheim’s acidic lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s rat-a-tat music while pounding out the choreography as if she were stomping a rattlesnake to death.

In high heels, no less.

“Trying to dance ’America’ and to belt it at the same time is very difficult,” she says. “I really enjoy it, but oh, man, is it hard. But I love the show so much, I just put all that in a corner. If I’m out of breath, I have to catch my breath, breathe through my nose, and hit that note. And I have a blast every time I do it.”

As hard as the singing and dancing are, however, it’s the acting — which informs both the music and the movement in the piece — that presents the greatest challenge.

“Having worked with Jerry Robbins (the show’s original director/choreographer) several times in my career, including two or three times on ’West Side Story’ with him, Jerry never approached us as dancers, only as actors,” says former dancer Mark Esposito, who is reconstructing Robbins’s movement for The Lex’s production. “He never, ever talked about doing a step. He only talked about the intention behind the movement, and what each movement meant. Everything was storytelling.”

In that spirit, Alves and director Mark Madama — who’s closely associated with Music Theatre of Wichita, where he first met The Lex’s artistic director, Lexington native Lyndy Franklin Smith, and her husband, producing director Jeromy Smith — hit upon a subtle but effective way of bringing Anita closer to the foreground of a key dramatic sequence.

Director Mark Madama (left) gives notes to actors, including Lexington native Colton Ryan as Tony, in a rehearsal of “West Side Story.” Kevin Nance

In the Act One scene in which Anita’s boyfriend Bernardo (Sean Ewing) challenges Tony (Lexington native Colton Ryan) at the dance just before the fateful rumble scene, Anita — normally on the periphery of the action at this point — steps forward.

“Bernardo is using Anita as his support — she’s part of his strength,” Madama says. “She doesn’t get too much into the fight — she takes just one step toward it — but that’s enough to make it clear, that one step.”

Which is to say, again: Don’t mess with Anita.

“I keep it honest and really jump into it,” Alves says with some of Anita’s defiant pride. “I will never get tired of doing this.”

“If I’m out of breath, I have to catch my breath, breathe through my nose, and hit that note,” Michelle Alves says of performing “America” in “West Side Story.” Kevin Nance

West Side Story

When: July 11-14

Where: Lexington Opera House

Tickets: $35-$100

Call: (859) 233-3535