Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

West Side Story
City Lights Theater Company

Also see Eddie's reviews of Hay Fever and Life Is a Dream, Patrick's reviews of The Pirates of Penzance and Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter and Richard's reviews of Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman and Company

Katherine Dela Cruz (center), Jomar Martinez (left), Nick Rodrigues, and Danielle Mendoza
Kicking off a summer of no less than three South Bay productions of the well-loved, much-produced West Side Story, City Lights Theater Company of San Jose stages its youthfully vigorous version packed with high testosterone, flashy dance moves, and sexy street sass. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the 1957 musical by a trio of luminaries (Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics) is so well known today that recapping its story of New York gang rivals, the recently immigrated Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian and mixed Old-World-heritage Jets, is hardly necessary. Who does not have at least a faint recall from either stage or movie of the opening mix-up between the two ready-for-rumble groups, the instant attraction of Tony and Marie as their eyes meet at a school dance, or their impassioned meeting on her balcony followed by Tony's unintended murder of her brother? All is be followed by further, inevitable tragedy, intertwined with delightful whimsy in a dress shop, mimicking fun in a drug store, and a dream-sequenced ballet of total beauty.

What makes this West Side Story particularly noteworthy is above all the casting of Katherine Dela Cruz as Maria. Each time she sings one of the iconic songs, her lyrical, strong, clear, at times almost operatic voice lifts the well known to new interpretations and dimensions. The higher she goes in musical scale, in both incredibly soft or equally astounding fortissimo tones, the better she is. Coupled with a personality that can be pixy and prissy in "I Feel Pretty," gaspingly astonished at her new love in "Tonight," and hauntingly persuasive in "I Have a Love," Ms. Dela Cruz is a Maria who can proudly place herself in a long line of memorable Marias from stages of the past.

Flanking Maria on both sides of the ethnic divides is a cast of young women who, individually and collectively, shine in song, dance, and acting. As Maria's older friend and brother Bernardo's girlfriend Anita, Danielle Mendoza sings with confidence, strength, and compassion and brings an ability to flare in anger, slide sensuously into her Bernardo's arms, and shoot from her eyes arrows of determined intensity (as in her warning to Maria of "A Boy Like That"). Zoey Lytle's brief moment in solo spotlight as her Velma opens the ever-hopeful "Somewhere" is mesmerizing; her sweet voice pierces in innocence to begin describing "a place ... a time for us" where all get along without racial bias or hatred. Yuliya Eydelnant is also terrific as she insistently trills that Puerto Rico is much better than the "America" being flaunted at her by teasing friends. In both "America" and "I Feel Pretty," the Shark girls as an ensemble deliver with precision of notes, bantering fun, and saucy moves.

Whenever the female half of the cast joins the males in choreographed numbers, magic tends to happen, making the exuberant, high-kicking numbers like "Mambo" sexy saunters like "Cha-Cha," or tender "Ballet Sequence" of act two true highlights of the show. Time and again, the choreography designed by Jennifer Gorgulho and executed with coordinated precision and emotional integrity by this cast is the magnetic draw to this West Side Story. As fashioned by Kit Wilder, fight scenes in both act finales are also executed believably with dodging and bombarding bodies flying and falling in fast, furious sequences.

As the Romeo-Tony half of the love story, Max Jennings meets for the first time his to-be love with open-mouth and puppy eyes; and he creates along with his Maria spontaneous sparks of attraction, an innocent determination to conquer all odds, and an always believable set of reactions to the tragedies mounting on all sides around him. Where this Tony falters is in his singing, especially in the opening night's act one. In crucial numbers like "Something's Coming," "Maria," and the duet with Maria of "Tonight," Mr. Jennings too often struggled to hit high ranges, failed to sustain notes their due, and intoned too softly to be heard above the score. He did settle into a better delivery as the show progressed, coming nearer to matching the strong Ms. Della Cruz as they sang eye-to-eye the touching "One Hand, One Heart."

Likewise, the other men of the cast tend to be well-cast for their acting and their dancing but have more trouble projecting the volume and/or hitting the low- or high-scaled demands of Bernstein's music. Josiah Frampton exudes the natural cockiness and confidence as Rif, the Jets' leader and Tony's loyal best pal. Like his magnetically attractive and naturally commanding Shark counterpart Bernardo (Nick Rodrigues), he is also nimble and exciting as a dancer. Both, however, do not bring the same power to their singing where notes are too weak for enough notice. The same is true for the hot-blooded, quick-to-over-react Action (Sean Okuniewicz); shy, sullen Chino (Jomar Martinez); funny sidekick Baby John (William Corkery); and the rest of the Sharks/Jets sets. While subsets can provide immense energy as in the "Jets Song" or hilarity as in the show-stopping "Gee, Officer Krupke," lyrics are often lost and overall volume seems about half what it needs to be. The one number the men rise to the women's capable levels is when they join together in the well-blended harmonies of "Somewhere," the most effectively sung, full-chorus number of the night.

Beyond possible opening night jitters, a key reason lyrics are often lost in this production is that they are drowned out by the surround-sound of a full orchestra that is piped in from a taped recording (and not even a great one at that). There are times when cast members (again, mostly the men) try too hard to make themselves heard over what is supposed to be background music and end up over-singing to the point of going flat. I found the sound of recorded music to be totally disappointing. Better to have one piano and perhaps a small combo in order to allow the non-miked voices to reach their audience. Even under-scored dialogue comes out indiscernible at times (and I was in the second row). The ultimate insult for me was the opening, musical prologue to act two when I felt I was listening to a TV movie—not a live, theatrical performance.

If volume adjustments can be made and some singers' confidence can grow as the run continues, there will be more than enough reasons to head to San Jose to see an amazingly good Maria, a strong set of female singers, and an overall excellent cast of actors and dancers (all ably directed by Lisa Mallette in the multi-leveled/niched set of Ron Gasparinetti). But there is also the timely reminder that the issues of 1957 urban New York are still with us (as we have seen on far too many recent newscasts). When the Jets' Rif says in his opening lines "These PR's are why my ol' man went bust" or the white police lieutenant Schrank (Frank Swaringen) hisses to Bernardo, "I got the badge ... You got the skin ... So beat it," we are reminded why audiences still desperately need to see what happens when racial and immigrant hatred takes over our society.

West Side Story continues at City Lights Theater Company, 529 Second Street, San Jose through August 23, 2015. Information and tickets available online at or by calling 408-295-4200.

City Lights has announced its 2015-2016 season, including two South Bay premieres (Tigers Be Still & I & You) and Green Day's American Idiot. More information about the full season and tickets is found at

Photo: Susan Mah Photography

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

- Eddie Reynolds