Latest Staging of 'West Side Story' Retains Musical's Timeless Appeal

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Running this month at the Orpheum in San Francisco is "West Side Story" - approximately its two millionth staging since its 1957 Broadway debut. For those who have somehow avoided "West Side Story," the plot is simple: "Romeo and Juliet" with NYC street gangs. It's the Jets vs. the Sharks. Greasers vs. Puerto Ricans. Hoodlums vs. los hoodlums.

But Bloods vs. Crips, this is not. Neither gang can resist the temptation to turn every fight into an acrobatic, frolicking dance. Hardly gangsta.

For most of the show, the Jets' presence onstage is merely physical - when not dancing, they strut about the stage, conveying their intense angst. Next to the Sharks, whose anger stems from the difficulties of being a dark-skinned immigrant in America, the Jets seem like whiners. The famous "Gee, Officer Krupke" number illuminates the causes of their anguish, and showcases the acting talent of the more minor actors. The Jets alternate play-acting as the various authority figures - cops, psychiatrists, judges, social workers - they have spent their youths trying to escape. Drew Foster, playing Action, was particularly funny, transforming his body to reflect these different roles.

The new "West Side Story" contains more Spanglish than previous versions. Perhaps this reflects a more serious effort to deal with the cultural differences than was made when the show began. Nevertheless, the show culls a number of cheap laughs from Tony's unrealistically stiff pronunciations of basic Spanish phrases like "buenas noches."

"West Side Story" is not exactly the most accurate representation of life as an immigrant - assuming that struggling New York City Peurto Ricans don't actually wear fine, colorful suits at all times - but it sure mines that stereotypical Latin elan for some energetic dance numbers. "America" is one of its most infectious numbers, its catchiness not harmed by its lyrical simplicity. "When I will go back to San Juan," sings one of the nameless, homesick Sharks, "everyone there will give big cheer." "Everyone there will have moved here," retorts America-loving Anita. This musical battle, which in the 1961 film version pits the pessimistic male Sharks against the women, becomes an exuberant, skirt-shaking dance, resolving the debate in favor of the optimists.

While the Sharks and Jets are fun to watch, completely enjoying "West Side Story" depends largely on how much you care about - or how little you are annoyed by - Tony and Maria, i.e. the play's updated Romeo and Juliet. Depending on your sappiness meter, their instant romance can be the show's weakest point. The choreography takes some steps to prevent this, turning their "love at first sight" moment from a consummating kiss into an extended near-balletic scene. The lights in the gymnasium-cum-ballroom darken, and Tony and Maria lead the two gangs in a dance in which all the partners maintain just enough room for the holy spirit. Not exactly what you'd expect from a bunch of greasers.

"Somewhere," the duet between grief-stricken Tony and Maria, undergoes a similarly sublime transformation. The stage changes from Maria's room into what appears to be heaven. The lights become blinding, and the cast, emerging in all white, moves happily and leisurely about the stage, as though they are no longer performing. It's a vision of what life might be like if they could all just get along. But no matter how many times "West Side Story" is re-staged, the Jets and the Sharks will always hate each other, and they'll always be entertaining. It's nice to know we can count on something.

Undergo a sublime transformation with Nick at [email protected]

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