Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

West Side Story
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Native Gardens

Jeffrey Brian Adams and Ana Paula Malagón
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
Testosterone-stoked braggadocio, sexy street sass and sachet, an air of invincibility against all odds. Hips that sway and bump, hands that probe and explore tenderly, and legs that go sky high and back again in a flash. And then there is the music, that glorious set of songs deeply embedded in the Great American Songbook. Voices soar, softly blend, and then explode—all rich in the accents of two neighborhoods that know only the streets as their playgrounds.

With a cast of thirty and an orchestra of fourteen, Hillbarn Theatre kicks off its seventy-eighth consecutive season with a West Side Story that proves that the sixty-plus-year-old musical is as current, relevant, and impactful today as it was in 1957. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the oft-produced, much-celebrated musical by a trio of luminaries—Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)—is so well known that recapping its story of the 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 silver screen of the opening mix-up between the two ready-for-rumble groups where snapping fingers provide a street rhythm for the cool but tension-ridden moves of the two gangs on the lookout for their rivals? And who can forget the instant attraction of Tony and Maria as their eyes meet at a school dance, or their impassioned meeting on her balcony followed by Tony's unintended murder of her brother? While we cringe in anticipation of the final, inevitable tragedy, we in the meantime relish the delightful whimsy of girls in front of a dress shop mirror, the rip-roaring fun of boys mocking a neighborhood cop in a corner drugstore, and the sheer beauty of a dream-sequenced ballet where forbidden love is actually possible.

As in every production of Romeo and Juliet, the crucial critique centers on the two lovers themselves—in this case, Italian-heritage Tony and recent immigrant of Puerto Rico, Maria. Among the myriad of inspired choices director Erica Wyman Abrahamson has made for this Hillbarn production of West Side Story is the casting of Ana Paula Malagón as Maria and of Jeffrey Brian Adams as Tony. Never is there any doubt of the immediate, magnetic attraction between this Tony and Maria, each initially glowing in innocence and naivite when it comes to love and each pulled in locked eyes to the other in a bond that even a brother's murder cannot break. Their constant need to remain in gentle, stroking touch of the other; their looks of mixed laughter, longing, and lust; and their tears that are always on the verge of spilling due to combined happiness and worry—all are signs that this Romeo/Juliet, Tony/Maria are a couple to join proudly other great pairings of past stagings.

Hearing their voices individually and in duet seals the deal. When Tony first sings "Something's Coming," his radiant smile full of hopeful anticipation is matched by a voice full of fresh exuberance searching for "a miracle due." While Jeffrey Brian Adams begins singing with some hesitation as his Tony wonders "Will it be?," once he meets Maria, his voice gains in power and confidence and finds an ability both to sing soft, sweet falsetto as well as let loose in full, joyful, and always crystal clear volume. His "Maria" is breathtaking as each mention of his newly beloved's name becomes more intense in its emotional impact—especially true in the final fading somewhere in the high octave heavens of that last "the most beautiful sound I have ever heard, Maria."

It is when we first hear Maria sing on the balcony, "Only you, you're the only thing I'll see forever" that we know the operatically trained Ana Paula Malagón is going to wow not only Tony, but us as well. A voice deeply rich in resonance reverberates without losing its youthful quality and reminds us of the sweet, pure character that Maria possesses as a young teenager. Notes float effortlessly, even when this Maria reaches with whisper softness to upward registers. The combination of the two lovers' voices in duet is a balanced and intertwined blend, as heard in their initial "Balcony Scene (Tonight)" and in each number thereafter, particularly including their "Finale" of "Hold my hand and I'll take you there, somehow ... somewhere."

Surrounding the two lovers is a bevy of equally talented singers/actors, with not a weak link ever evident on opening night among the two-plus dozen. As Anita, Maria's older friend and Bernardo's girlfriend, Danielle Philapil time and again knocks it out of the park with a performance that sizzles and snaps, whether furiously dancing in locked arms and wrapped legs with Bernardo or singing in a voice full of depth and emotion when warning Maria of "A Boy Like That." Danielle Cheiken is terrifically funny and feisty as she proudly (and stubbornly) defends her native Puerto Rico while her teasing friends in fast-and-furious clips brag to her about the much better "America." In both "America" and "I Feel Pretty," the Shark Girls as an ensemble deliver with precision of notes, bantering fun, and saucy moves.

With a mouth often in cocked position and a swagger full of teen brazen, Josiah Frampton as Tony's best bud Riff brings a pleasing, pointed edge to his vocals in "Jet Song" as well as smooth glides and slides in "Cool." Fellow Jet members include the hot-blooded, quick-to-blows Action (James Schott), whose voice booms in pent-up anger against the world; the shy and sullen Chino (Jose Gallentes), whose silent looks betray the love he actually has for Maria; the funster sidekick Baby John (Tucker Gold); and the tomboy, wannabe-Jet, Anybodys (deserving nomination as "best featured actor," Katie Maupin).

On the Shark side, Jorge Diaz is the stunningly handsome, charismatic leader Bernardo, doomed brother of Maria. Unfortunately, the famous trio of Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim do not give him and the actors playing his Sharks as many chances to spotlight their individual vocals or personalities as they do the Jets, but collectively, they sing with great power, surety, and determination in numbers like the exquisite, rousing, and moving quintet of groups/solos, "Tonight." And, like the Jets, when the Sharks take the dance floor (whether on the street as in "Prologue" or in the gym as in "The Dance on the Gym"), they excel in perfectly timed, perfectly executed moves that rip with frenetic, muscular power and wow with sudden shifts to slow-motion beauty.

But it is when the guys are joined by the young women in swishing skirts of multi-colored petticoats that the choreography of Kim Harvath really shows its true mettle. Bodies mold erotically in moves suggestive and then separate to leap into air or slide across the floor in "The Dance at the Gym." Totally different styles are wonderfully employed as a stage full of white-donned figures slowly, gracefully accompany the dream sequence ballet "Somewhere," beautifully danced by Angela Curotto-Pierson and Neil Rushnock and accompanied by soloist Danielle Cheiken, whose remote, echoing voice brings a moment of hope for "a time and place for us."

From beginning to end, the choreography designed by Kim Harvath and executed with coordinated precision, individual prowess, and emotional integrity by this cast is perhaps the real star of this West Side Story. As coordinated by Zoƫ Swenson-Graham, the fight scenes in both act finales are also executed with exactness and scary believability (even with audience just a few feet away from the action), with dodging and bombarding bodies flying and falling in fast, furious sequences and with sounds of contact realistic to the point of almost causing audience pain.

Ting Na Wang has created a set that at first glance appears rather simple and plain. However, as the musical proceeds through its many scenes, a drugstore's interior appears, a famous balcony scene plays out on one side with the interior bedroom appearing on the other, doors/gates slam as gangs chase and run through alleys and around corners left and right, and members crawl through cracks in the wall or clamber over chain-link fence. All is accomplished with quick, seamless scene shifts. The lighting design of Pamila Gray completes the realistic setting of an inner city's gritting 'hood, with shadows often looming behind for special and effective silhouettes.

Special mention must also go to the colorful, creative costumes of Raven Winter who so vividly captures the late '50s styles of the recently arrived Sharks and Shark Girls and the "American Bandstand" followers, the '50s-cool Jets and their girlfriends. Ms. Winter tops off the retro looks with wigs and make-up that have all the dyes, the waves, and the red lips one would expect to accompany those tight pants and swirling skirts.

The challenging music of Leonard Bernstein is magnificently played by the talented orchestra assembled and directed by music director Rick Reynolds. Whether instruments play solo or as a full group of fourteen, the quality is consistently exceptional, and both exciting and mesmerizing.

When Jets' Riff says in his opening lines "Them PRs're the reason my old man's gone bust" or when the white police lieutenant Schrank (a snarling, cynical Marty Lee Jones in sloppy trench coat) hisses to Bernardo, "I got the badge, you got the skin ... Beat it!," we are reminded of why West Side Story is still so much a musical of our times and why Hillbarn Theatre's production is so timely. Audiences still desperately need to be reminded what happens when racial and immigrant hatred takes over our society. And in the process of that reminder, this Hillbarn Theatre production of West Side Story will also thrill and inspire.

West Side Story, through September 16, 2018, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.