I’m not the kind of girl that reads a book twice. Movies, even the best, might get a repeat or two, but usually spaced over years. Theatre however is different for me. The temptation to visit multiple productions, sometimes even close together, can be quite compelling. Different script edits, actors, different visuals, different voices, chemistry and even seeing it with a different audience, can drastically impact your experience. Live theatre. Yeah, it’s pretty magical.
I know I state the obvious when I say West Side Story has certainly proved a popular show. Even to those that haven’t seen it, it’s hard not to recognize the songs. I myself have seen several productions of it, walked out of one production, seen the movie, even been in the show, and at the risk of the Bard rolling over in his grave and Shakespearian die-hards striking me down, I think it’s far better than its source material, Romeo and Juliet. It really is one of my favorite shows and for a girl who doesn’t consider herself an overall fan of musicals, that’s not only saying something about the awesomeness of the show, but it’s also potentially a recipe for disaster in the expectations department.
Rest assured, this was a really fantastic production that captivated even as I sat with tissue in hand ready to do battle with a cold that was determined to try and distract me. Let’s start off with praising the orchestra. They are a gift. The music is too of course, but hearing those songs played live, the sounds filling up the theatre, it’s even better than the sound of 2,500 + people clapping, which is among my favorite sounds, right up there with champagne corks and kittens purring. It’s difficult not to hum. Harder still not to want to dance. The vibrations are electric. It’s kind of genius.
This production retained the amazing Jerome Robbins Choreography (which tells a story with each move and kinetic interaction) with an ensemble skilled enough to pull it off. This is the only way to do this show in my opinion. You need those moves and you need to be able to do them effortlessly and ACT while doing it. It’s often hard to find Jets and Sharks that can dance, act, sing and look tough/scrappy enough to be believable as a street gang. This cast was damn close. Shout out to Diesel who owned it, equally at ease with the fight choreography and modern moves as he was in the ballet lifts.
There is a fair amount of Spanish (which I don’t speak) in this incarnation of the show and it brings a really authentic quality to the overall arc of the show. We get a more distinct sense of the division of cultures, we get a glimpse into the challenges of assimilation, and it underscores the poignant side of the search for the American Dream and how it falls so short even for the native born Jets. Ultimately, I didn’t feel disadvantaged for not knowing what was being said, but I’m not sure if that would be the same for someone that hadn’t seen the show several times before. Parts of some songs were translated to Spanish and I thought they worked beautifully. It also seemed to give the female ensemble some extra weight and depth to their roles and their relationships.
This really was a show for the ensemble to shine. From Shrank to Consuela to Rosalia to Doc the small moments stood out. This production played up the police brutality more than I’ve seen before which was interesting, timely and certainly believable due to the again these supporting actors in the ensemble roles. The upped crassness of Dear Officer Krupke was entertaining and again really highlighted the versatile talents of the ensemble Jets.
Tony was enchanting, Maria adorable, their voices very respectable, and their chemistry sufficient. Anita was certainly spicy, Bernardo more controlled and sympathetic than I have seen him played but (and I promise, I’ll not repeat myself anymore after this) the real joy for me were the ensemble dance numbers and fight sequences. Such commitment and skill, it made the emotional stakes so much higher.
Technically the show was exciting too. The set changes were almost seamless, quite a feat given their enormity and number of changes. Lighting was effective and not over gimmicky. Sound levels and balance were fine from my seat too. No complaints from the technical side of things.
This production was really quite nice from beginning to end and a great way to experience this show be it your first or your 500th time seeing it. Aside from an odd final moment and a well-executed “Somewhere” ballet that just exceed the cheese limits for my personal taste, it really was a pleasure. A solid 4 out of 5 jewels in the tiara. West Side Story plays through Sunday, January 22nd only at the Center of Performing Arts in San Jose.
***There’s a lot going on downtown, the Symphony, The Rep, The Theatre on San Pedro Square, The Sharks, so make sure you leave plenty of time to find parking with everyone trying to park around the same time. Public lots are plentiful and near but if you are running late, you maybe find it just takes you longer than you expect and you don’t want to miss those opening notes. Additionally, if you have a choice get seats closer to the center. Take a few rows back if you can get center over a close row on the side, sight lines are slightly better if you are at least 10 seats from the aisle.