West Side represent!

West Side StoryThe Broadway company of West Side Story dances it out at the gymnasium. Below: The Shark ladies argue about the merits of living in “America.” Photos by Joan Marcus

To quote one of the Jets, “Dig this and dig it the most.” The most compelling drama at Wednesday’s opening of West Side Story wasn’t happening on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre. It was a few blocks away at the giant theater known as AT&T Park, where the Giants were routing the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series.

The Orpheum stage crew thoughtfully announced the score before the show started and then shared the news of the Giants’ win before the show resumed after intermission.

The Giants delivered an impressive score Wednesday night, and so did West Side Story. Under the baton of John O’Neill the 19-piece orchestra conveyed the irresistible pulse of Leonard Bernstein’s music and gave the entire evening the sort of dramatic heft and unbelievable beauty that only occasionally appeared on stage.

I wonder if any production of West Side Story will ever live up to the grandeur of the score. In theory, the idea of translating Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of 1950s New York is a good one, but the story is so rooted in its time – in ways the score is not – that it can’t help but seem a bit of a relic.

This touring production, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, is based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the book. It was Laurents’ intention to deliver something rough and gritty, which he does by trying to actualize the violence. The blood and danger on stage is amped up, but the Jets – the kids of white immigrants – and the Sharks – the kids of Puerto Rican immigrants – are still exquisite dancers, so the real threat is missing a turn or falling out of step with your fellow hoodlum.

That said, the moments that propel West Side Story far beyond most musicals involve the seamless combination of Jerome Robbins’ choreography and the Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score.

West Side Story 3

In the touring production helmed by David Saint (based on Laurents’ work) and choreographed by Joey McKneely (based on Robbins’ original), those moments are thrilling: the “Dance at the Gym” when the Sharks and the Jets pretend to play nice; Anita (the wonderful Michelle Aravena) and her friends tearing up “America”; and the “Tonight” quintet, which is practically operatic in its scope.

The more intimate moments don’t work as well in this production, partly because the Tony and Maria lack chemistry. Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt are appealing, and Ewoldt has a shimmering light soprano, but their love story is suggested more than felt. That’s partly the result of the book – they fall in love instantly (like Romeo and Juliet) and are on their knees pledging their troth within 24 hours.

Still, you must admit, having the song “Somewhere” accompanied by a dream ballet as foreplay is a fairly potent aphrodisiac.

One of the nice surprises of this revival isn’t the intermittent Spanish that pops up in the lyrics and dialogue but the joyful menace that turns the out-of-sync novelty number “Gee, Officer Krupke” into something with a little more dramatic weight. Similarly, “I Feel Pretty,” which can be pretty cornball, is actually funny and a little sassy.

Laurents’ revised ending – the same people die in the same old ways – makes it less explicit that the war between the Sharks and the Jets has ended. In other productions (and the movie), the gangsters join together to carry a fallen comrade off the stage. Maria’s grief and outrage over all the senseless violence has bridged their differences. Not so here – there’s an attempt to cross enemy lines, but it’s tentative at best.

That’s a realistic ending, especially as it follows the near-horrific scene in which the Jets nearly rape Anita. If these truly are dangerous thugs, as Laurents wants us to believe, a crying Maria or a stack of dead bodies won’t quell their hate and gangster tendencies.

Realistic or not, it still doesn’t make for a great musical theater ending. Shakespeare knew there needed to be a glimmer of hope, and you certainly feel that in Bernstein’s music, as we “Somewhere,” mustering its hymn-like power, rumbles in the underscore. But Laurents’ stage picture withholds that from us.

Dig that and dig it the most. Vamos Gigantes.


West Side Story continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 746 1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.

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