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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Dazzling Dancing Saves West Side Story

Also see Richard's review of The Old Neighborhood

Broadway By The Bay is presenting as their last musical of the 2003 season the classic Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurent musical, West Side Story. I have been a fan of this musical ever since I saw Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera in the original at the Winter Garden just after it opened on Broadway in 1957. I have seen West Side Story countless times. I have seen touring companies both in this country and England, a Spanish production in Madrid, and watched the filming of the movie both in New York and at the Fox studios in Los Angeles. The musical has even played in opera houses all over the world, including the prestigious La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy.

West Side Story had a fascinating history even before it was presented to the public in New York. The original idea was to center the plot around a Jewish boy and an Italian Catholic girl. The street gangs were to be Catholics vs. Jews. It was shelved for six years because of prior commitments of the parties involves. Finally, it was decided that a native born Polish boy and a newly arrived Puerto Rican girl scenario was more timely and relevant.

There were times when Leonard Bernstein felt like quitting the project. He said "I don’t know how many people begged me not to waste my time on something that could not possibly succeed . . . a show full of hatefulness and ugliness."

The New York premiere on September 26, 1957, was not a great triumph. Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune said, "The show is, in general, not well sung. It is rushingly acted ... " However, he balanced his review by applauding the dancing as "the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patters we’ve been exposed to in a dozen seasons." There is a point of interest about the dancing. Up to that time, dance rehearsals lasted about four weeks, but choreographer Jerome Robbins insisted on eight weeks of rehearsals before West Side Story opened. The show has become a watershed for musicals that changed the theater from musical comedy to musical tragedy.

Broadway By The Bay is presenting a good and lively production on the San Mateo stage with a large cast of 36 singers and dancers and a full orchestra under the able direction of Brandon Adams. The orchestra has all of the zip and energy of the musical itself.

The dance is extraordinary, and it distinguishes this production. Berle Davis, one of the best music theater choreographers in this country, has a group of very talented and exciting young dancers playing the Jets and Sharks. The dream sequence in the second act is exquisite and sharply contrasts with the down-to-earth primitiveness of the gang dances.

Matthew B. Hutchens once again puts his complete heart and soul into the dancing of the neurotic Action of the Jet gang. He gives well over 100% of his soul to "Cool," and his wild antics in "Officer Krupke" show us the sociopath character of Action. Jeff Leibow as the predestined Riff and Chris Dwyer as the leader of the Sharks are excellent in both dancing and singing. They show the pent up frustrations of the social world around them. The female dance and singing chorus are great, especially in "America" and the dance at the gym number. They give rhythm to the Latin beat and they can shake a mean leg.

Davis and director Kit Wilder dispense with the overture, and the musical goes immediately into the Jets dance number. Much of the dance is original Jerome Robbins' since Berle was in the national touring company of West Side Story playing a Jet.

The "rape" scene of Anita (Jeanne Batacan-Harper) has been toned down a bit; it is hidden behind the drugstore counter. Also, Doc (Jack Sargent), as the owner of the store, is not as outraged as other performers I have seen in the past.

West Side StoryNoel Anthony seems a little old for Tony, but he has splendid vocal chops in the songs "Maria" and "Something's Coming." Dani Marcus has a striking dramatic singing voice and she is outstanding as Maria. However, the death scene at the end goes on just a little too long, even though she gives a heartfelt performance. Jeanne Batacan-Harper gives a good performance; however, her rendition of "A Boy Like That" could have been a little stronger. She could have been more forceful in the rendition.

Kit Wilder's direction is fast paced with only a few slow moments in some of the scenes. The set is mostly an open set with roll-in pieces for the drugstore and Maria's room and dress shop. Stage manager Kirsten McMullen gives the dancers plenty of room to work out their frenzies and energies. The lighting by Michael Ramsaur is very prominent, since it changes at high speed to improve the emotional values.

West Side Story plays thru October 12 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. For tickets to this production call 650-579-5568 ext 1 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Broadway By the Bay's 2004 season will include Julie Styne and Bob Merrill's Funny Girl, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' Bye Bye Birdie and John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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