Beat It! 

West Side Story works in spite of itself.

You better run, you better do what you can

Don't wanna see no blood, don't be a macho man.

— "Beat It," Michael Jackson

It has now become quite impossible for me to hear "Beat it," the opening words of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical West Side Story, without instantly imagining images from the video for Michael Jackson's "Beat It," a 1980s homage to 1957's Broadway gang-banger.

This condition is a generational thing and not the play's fault. I understand this, but my memories of Jackson urging on a "funky strong" fight do underscore how silly it is to have a bunch of dangerous thugs stalking about the stage snapping their fingers at one another. In an "Oh, snap" world, how can anybody take these ominous fillips seriously?

Theatre Memphis' ambitious take on West Side Story (itself an ambitious take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) is helped along mightily by the presence of director Mitzi Hamilton, the triple-threat performer who inspired and acted the role of Val in the original London and Broadway productions of Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line. Her increasingly frequent visits to Memphis tend to result in shows that burst at the seams with sophistication and sweaty, acrobatic choreography. Her West Side Story, a dark, visually poetic memory, is no exception.

From a purely sensual perspective, West Side Story is superior to Hamilton's hugely successful 2006 mounting of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. But that's largely due to the fact that the material, which captures the beauty and volatility of America's melting pot, stands head and shoulders over Webber's feline spectacle.

Bernstein's boldly modern pre-rock score is given a jazzy workout by Angelo Rapan's assembled musicians and Christopher McCollum's set is a fantastical and paranoid reminder that the night has at least a thousand eyes. But for all the good dancing and fine design, the acting is weak. The relationships between the characters are thinly drawn and that flaw threatens to turn this professionally conceived extravaganza into an amateur production.

From the show's opening scenes, the Jets come off as a bunch of badly dressed powder puffs. But the Sharks are another matter entirely. No matter how balletic their leaps may be, the actors portraying the Puerto Rican street fighters seem fierce enough. Jesus Pacheco, a University of Memphis undergraduate, is particularly effective as the tragically fated Bernardo. He's even figured out how to float menacingly.

Theatre Memphis has found a pair of truly lovely voices to fill the Romeo and Juliet roles of Tony and Maria. When Josh Quinn and Emily Pettet sing the show's iconic centerpiece, "Tonight," standing alone on a simple fire escape, silhouetted against thousands of windows and millions of stars, it's almost impossible to imagine that these actors aren't the original Tony and Maria setting standards for everyone to follow. But everything else that happens between them is rote and passionless. Quinn's big operatic tenor can't do anything about the simple fact that he'd be more believable as a Wally Cleaver impersonator than as a feared and respected member of a hard-core street gang.

Matthew Strampe's lighting is like a kiss that forgives a multitude of sins. It meshes with the more theatrical elements of McCollum's sets and makes this West Side Story's best moments, such as fight choreographer Pam Hurley's rhythmic rumbles, seem magical. More importantly, the expert design keeps things visually exciting even through portions of the show that aren't fully baked. The rich colors and simple, engaging scenery keep us from cringing when Latino accents go too far South or when show-stopping numbers, such as "America," never build up enough momentum.

Andre Bruce Ward's excellent costumes are a hallmark of Theatre Memphis' productions. But in this case, he doesn't always deliver. If the Jets seem a little less fearsome than they should be, the occasional round of matching suit jackets exacerbates it, and the gang colors make these baby-faced juvenile delinquents look like members of a doo-wop club.

On opening night, the audience gave the performers a thunderous standing ovation. That was over the top, perhaps, but not entirely unearned. There's not a harder working cast in Memphis at the moment, and it's difficult to imagine that all of Memphis' stages combined have seen so much perspiration all season long.

At Theatre Memphis through June 29th

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