That they make believable lovers is crucial to the success of this West Side Story. Without the sweet romanticism of "Tonight," there is no brittle irony to "America," which follows almost immediately. Without the finger-snapping percussiveness of "Cool," the tenderness of "One Hand, One Heart" would fall flat. And without the carefully delineated contrasts of the principal characters, there would be little excitement to the "Tonight" ensemble.
But it is Natascia A. Diaz as Anita who repeatedly cranks up the heat onstage and supplies much of the fierce sensuality that gives the show its lifeblood. Diaz sings, dances, and acts with apparently equal ease. She portrays Anita as wise, generous, and worldly without making her brazen or cynical. Along with Natasha Harper as Rosalia and the other Shark girls (Michelle Dejean, Greta Martin, Eileen Kaden, and Christiane Farr), she nearly stops the show with "America."
As I marveled at the sheer brilliance of the show's architecture and the superb quality of the performers to whom it has been entrusted, it seemed almost a side issue how athletic it is. Each number demands everything from the dancers. Then, almost before you know it, there they are, giving their utmost once again. It's like an Olympic event. Suffice it to say this company earns a gold medal.
West Side Story runs through Jan. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre in S.F.; call 776-1999.