A simple Story 

To look at Matt Stokes, it's hard to imagine anyone daring to rumble with him. The Atlanta native has the build of a pioneer who could pull the plow himself should the oxen die. But then he parts his lips, and a clean, gentle, resonant tenor sings sweetly and sincerely of love. Suspend that one disbelief -- that neither a Jet nor a Shark could credibly challenge him -- and, yes, this is surely the tender voice Leonard Bernstein heard for Tony.

This weekend, the Atlanta Lyric Theatre performs West Side Story, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's politically charged retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in 1950s New York in the midst of gang warfare.

Artistic Director Lynn Thompson's initial intent was to showcase the Lyric's orchestra in a purely musical performance. But the story wouldn't be silenced; Bernstein's music tells too well. So Thompson brought in Theatrical Outfit's Kate Warner to direct a spare production. Joe Roesner, a principal dancer with the Atlanta Ballet, choreographed the dance scenes with eight Atlanta Ballet dancers and the Lyric's performers.

The result is a minimalist approach to the story, with the emphasis still on the music. The orchestra plays on stage, thrusting the dancers and singers right up to the edge of the audience. The stage is lightly dressed with a scaffold for a balcony, a door and a bed for a bedroom. The blocking is simple, and the acting is abridged and suggestive.

While preparing the premiere performance in 1957, Bernstein wrote in his journal, "I guess we were right not to cast 'singers': Anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the 'kid' quality would be gone."

While many of the performers in the Lyric's production are professionals, most sing true to their characters. Only Danielle McCormick, who has a lovely opera-trained soprano, sings somewhat too ornately for Maria. Rita Dolphin as Anita is lusty and expressive. Timothy Ellis as Riff is harsh and hard. And the nasal clowning of Brandon Deyette as Action in "Gee, Officer Krupke" gives a hilarious tour through the circular chain of blame for rumbling delinquents.

The Atlanta Lyric Theatre presents West Side Story Nov. 14-15 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive. $35-$45. 404-894-9600. atlantalyrictheatre.com.

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