“It embarrasses me. It’s very hard for me to listen to some of those songs.”
– Stephen Sondheim on his lyrics for West Side Story,
as interviewed by ABC-7 News (28 December 2010)
What is it about this show? There are plenty of Broadway classics that are staged by everyone with a community center at their disposal, but what is it about this one that keeps bringing people back? Is it the fact that it’s a show that calls for a near-equal amount of White and PoC performers? Is it the translation of Shakespeare into a then-modern setting? Is it the way it not only acknowledges racism, but points out the fact that American law enforcement are out to get people of color? Is the infinitely catchy songs with lyrics by “the Dick Tracy guy” and music by that-dude-whose-name-is-the-only-lyric-anyone-remembers-from-that-one-REM-song?
The answer is “yes”. Yes, to all of the above. All of those things made West Side Story a risky proposition when it was first conceived. Today, it’s often the first thing people think of when asked to name The Great American Musical. It is by no means perfect – its “racism on both sides” angle hasn’t aged well – but those flaws add to its character. On paper, a show about juvenile delinquents whose scuffles looks more like the opening night of the Bolshoi Ballet sounds like the most ridiculous thing in the world. In person, it’s a wonderful example of how some emotions can only be expressed in a bodily extreme to make any sense.
It’s no wonder that even Steven Spielberg is trying his hand at a new film version (there’s some debate as to whether he’ll be basing it off of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2009 “Spanglish” revival). The most successful Hollywood director of all time wants a shot at (debatably) the most famous musical of all time. But before he employs $200m CGI to make the streets of New York look like 1954, Berkeley Playhouse decided to take a shot at it.
There’s no way I’m recapping this plot. It’s West Side Story. If there’s honestly some way that you don’t know the plot of “Romeo and Juliet-by-way-of-The Naked City”, then I suggest you immediately file charges against your parents for having deprived you of a decent childhood. The only thing one can do is look at it through modern eyes.
To its credit, a lot of it still holds up. Sondheim’s self-deprecating quote above notwithstanding, the songs are still as catchy as ever. If I may speculate, I think the lyricist’s embarrassment is rooted in the fact that, at its core, West Side Story is a ballet. All of the lyrics and dialogue can be stripped away and the point will still be made – just look at the opening scene to see for yourself. Hell, 1/3 of the cast spend more time snapping their fingers that speaking dialogue.
What’s more, even I was surprised at how timely said dialogue remains, what with the opening complaint that the new influx of Boricua neighbors and businesses have put the “native” stores out of business. And the characters of Shrank and Krupke are the sort of cops that make NFL stars take a knee these days. Even when one cringes at the anti-Puerto Rico lyrics of “America”, it’s not hard to see the basis of an immigrant feeling the need to slam the “old world” in favor of the new. Had the song been about Italy or Poland, the lyrics would probably still be problematic, but answer me this: what’s more American than railing at every other country that isn’t ours? West Side Story’s dips into fantasy have never overshadowed the fact that it holds all Americans accountable for the cancer of racism.
Under the direction of Rachel Robinson, the Playhouse pulls off an entertaining version. Sarah Phykitt’s set might not be the most elaborate put up at the Julia Morgan, but they’re working with a show that jumps all over one of the most populous cities in the entire world – some slack can be given. Besides, they make the most use of limited space by tossing in a few extra set pieces (ladders, beds, chairs, etc.) when needed. Though the transitions are a bit awkward with how many people you see during “alone” moments, the overall action is well-staged and the voices all clear.
And the cast isn’t bad either. Though the show has always called for half its cast to be Latinx, it should come as no surprise that both Broadway and Hollywood have often copped out by casting White people with tans (or bad make-up). Thankfully, we live in a world where shouting “Representation matters!” can sometimes – not always – be listened to. As such, the Playhouse wisely sought out an ethnically-appropriate ensemble to people their stage. I didn’t want to single out anyone, but Vida Mae Fernandez is a standout as Anita. Given that the role won Rita Moreno (the only actual Latinx in the film’s cast) an Oscar, it’s to Fernandez’s credit that she isn’t lost under the shadow of one of Broadways most famous supporting roles.
The only real weak links of the cast are, incidentally, the two playing actual adults. Ron Dritz and Tim Holt Jones never get a handle on their roles as Doc and Lt. Shrank, respectively. They both speak far too low and when you can hear them, their deliveries barely amount to line readings. Considering that the two characters both have moments where they become incredibly emotional, it was a bit of a letdown to see two actors who only gave the bare minimum. Fortunately, the younger members of the cast brought a lot of the necessary energy.
If I say nothing else, let me say that Dave Maier’s fights and Allison Paraiso’s dancing both made great use of the limited space. This is a stage that constantly shifts from rumbles to dance-offs at the drop of a hat. Even knowing the beats that were coming, the two choreographers nicely present a version that not only confirms that this is a ballet with dialogue, it celebrates it.
We keep returning to West Side Story because it represents an incredible paradox: it’s too over-the-top to be ignored, yet too nuanced to be dismissed out-of-hand; it’s ridiculous dated in its setting and dialogue, yet incredibly timeless in its social commentary; it’s the sort of show anyone can put on, but only has half its cast gotten the performers it deserves.
I’m not the one to end the debate about what is/n’t The Great American Musical, but I will say that the Berkeley Playhouse has put on a fine production of this beloved show.
West Side Story is scheduled to run until the 17th of March at the Berkeley Playhouse.
The show runs roughly two hours with a single 15-min intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.