Silence your cell phones (whatever they are) because it’s the late 1950s and this is Hell’s Kitchen. The streets of New York City belong to two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and their feud is about to reach a fever pitch. Sit back, or rather perch yourself on the edge of your seat, as the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s production of West Side Story rumbles to life at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center.

You’re drawn in as soon as you hear the familiar sound of finger snapping and Leonard Bernstein’s refrain, signaling the arrival of the Jets, led by Riff (Nick Meyer), strutting down the aisle. They’re looking for a fight against the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Marco Antonio Sariñana), and they’re going to get one. They’re all bad boys with good voices and cool dance moves, and somebody’s bound to meet his end. Into the maelstrom enter two young lovers, Tony (Jeff DeWitt) and Maria (Tina Hartell), who defy their families to their own detriment.

Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, remains relevant even today. The theme of “us versus them” reverberates loud and clear, as does its ultimate dire conclusion. The magic of West Side Story comes from the brilliance of Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and the original choreography of Jerome Robbins (which echoes throughout this production). ARTS keeps it alive while making the age-old story seem all its own.

Hartell and DeWitt have a lovely chemistry as Maria and Tony. One could listen to Hartell sing all day without growing tired of her voice, and her Maria is a sweet innocent with an iron will. One of the highlights of the production is the meeting between Tony and Maria at the dance, where it feels as if the rest of the world falls away and love rises, however fleetingly, above everything else. Other great moments include “I Feel Pretty,” “America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool,” where the ensemble lets loose and has a ball. Standouts from the cast include Sandra Diana Cantú as Anita, Meyer as Riff, Sariñana as Bernardo and Maya Efrat as Rosalia. They all make their characters multidimensional, especially Cantú and Efrat, who find the sass and melancholy as well as the humor in their “bad” girls.

Directors Jan Glasband and Caroline Esposito create a production that leaves the audience sighing at the end and singing all the way home. Becky Castells deftly choreographs the large cast (no small feat), giving a nod to the great Jerome Robbins while putting her own stamp on the dance numbers. The set, designed by Will Shupe, shifts and spins from the city streets to the bridal shop and every place in between in such a way that it feels as if it’s part of the dance. Costumes by Tanya Apuya make you want to put on a pencil skirt or James Dean blue jeans. 

One of the biggest delights of the production is the accompaniment by a live orchestra conducted by Matt Park. Experiencing Leonard Bernstein’s music live alone is worth the price of admission. The fine cast and crew make it something worth seeing as well.

Catch West Side Story through April 8 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley. For tickets, schedule and more information, call 583-7900 or visit www.simi-arts.org.