West Side stories

The Bay Area was awash in musical gang warfare in the summer of 2015


Spring, 2016

Northern California was in the grip of a fascination with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story during the summer of 2015. Five productions were produced within 65 miles of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. They were as varied in venue and professional status as they were in geography, but each exhibited serious respect for the work and concrete evidence of its strength as a piece of musical theater.

Sacramento’s venerable Music Circus performs in a huge theatre-in-the-round, reminiscent of the company’s original circus tent more than 60 years ago. With a 17-musician orchestra conducted by Broadway and tour veteran Craig Barna, and a full equity cast, Music Circus put on a summer season of one-week productions. 

Selling out one week of nine performances in a 2,200 seat house (which Music Circus did, Aug. 4-9) would just about equal a 50-week run for San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company in its 101-seat house. City Lights didn’t have 50 weeks, but it did sell out its run of 39 highly professional and exciting performances (July 16-Aug.30), featuring pre-recorded orchestra tracks from Right On Cue Services in Utah. 

City Lights wasn’t the smallest house. The community theater Pacifica Spindrift Players mounted West Side Story in their 98-seat house south of San Francisco (Aug. 14-Sept. 13). They couldn’t impress with special effects or disciplined dancing, but they did have one nice touch when audiences entered. Placed in a tight spotlight in the middle of the simple set's floor was a shiny switchblade knife establishing the show's somber tone. 

Sixty miles to the north, another small troupe, the North Bay Stage Company, put on the show in a cabaret  (July 17-Aug. 2). It situated a 12-piece orchestra on the audience’s right, making the audio balance difficulty in a hard acoustic space. 

Back to the south end of the region, the Broadway by the Bay series offered the summer’s most exciting production (Aug. 14-30) at its 1,348-seat restored movie palace, the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. 

Seeing five different companies under five different directors tackling the same material provided a chance to appreciate West Side Story's strengths and to note where time has begun to impact audience reactions. The taunting of Anita varied from angry teasing to actual attempted rape. Tony and Maria’s fate still proved its power to choke up an audience, except when, as happened in Santa Rosa, the director dispensed with the Sharks and Jets cooperating to carry off Tony’s body. Different directors and their designers paid varying amounts of attention to the script’s description of "the Jets and the Sharks, each of which has its own prideful uniform." None used jackets, but the most distinctive use of color in the costumes was in the Redwood City production. 

"Gee, Officer Krupke" might be the song most impacted by the passage of time. It has lost none of its humor since 1956, but its shock value has diminished. “My sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress” is hardly gasp-inducing in 2015, but “that’s why I’m a mess!” remains a nifty rhymed tag line. When well delivered, it still lands with the audience for at least a bit of a smile. 

The other victim of changing times appears to be the dream ballet and "Somewhere." Dream ballets, of course, were once de reguiere in musicals. Today, audiences aren’t as used to seeing them and might not understand when a performance veers from the rough depiction of reality to the world of the mind. 

Jerome Robbins, in his concept, and Arthur Laurents in his book each suggests features to clarify for audience members the entry into Tony and Maria’s hopes and dreams, which turns into a nightmare. Several of the California directors did not find satisfying ways to do this. The Music Circus’s director, Bob Richard, provided the clearest clues, flooding the stage with mist to signify fantasy. 

At the City Lights, director Lisa Mallette used one thoughtful effect at the beginning of the of the ballet: she had Tony and Maria run through the audience to steal attention from the set change, with Maria extending her hand behind her and Tony reaching for it in exactly the same position as the cover photograph on the original Broadway cast album. I wonder how many in the audience recognized it. [TSR]