‘West Side Story’ sticks with what works

By Christopher K. Conner

McCain Auditorium started off a busy April on Thursday with a performance of “West Side Story.” Set in the mid 1950s Upper West Side of New York City this “Romeo and Juliet” inspired musical centers on two teen gangs fighting over a small territory.

The Jets are Polish-American and most were born into the neighborhood. The Sharks are primarily Puerto Rican immigrants. Both sides are holding on to grudges that have turned into hatred. Coming between that hatred, the police try to stop the violence between the gangs, but a code of silence prevents either side from helping the police. Even if that help would hurt their rivals.

Meeting at Doc’s drug store, Jets leader Riff hatches a plan to challenge the Sharks to a rumble. He’s ready to fight bare handed, but if the Sharks choose more dangerous weapons Riff wants the Jets to be ready. He also wants to get his friend and former Jet, Toni, to join in. Some of the Jets doubt Toni’s loyalty, but Riff convinces them he’s a Jet for life.

Riff resolves to challenge Bernardo at the dance that night and convinces Toni that he should go to the dance, both to support the Jets and in the hopes that he might meet someone.

At the dance, a kind of dance-off breaks out from the tension of Sharks and Jets being in such close proximity. During this, Toni meets eyes with Maria. Maria is Bernardo’s sister and was brought to America to marry Chino. Maria and Toni end up kissing which enrages Bernardo. Seeing his opportunity, Riff challenges Bernardo and they arrange for a war council at Doc’s after the dance.

Toni makes his way to Maria’s building and the two meet on the fire escape and profess their love for one another. Tension builds as the gangs wait for the rumble, and even though Toni had convinced them to have a fist fight between Bernardo and Diesel, rather than an all-out brawl, Maria wants him to stop the fight altogether.

Buoyed by his new love, Toni promises to stop the fight. The events that follow lead to tragedy for all involved.

This performance of West Side Story stuck with what works. The sets weren’t overly complicated, with a few modest roll-off pieces and some creative curtains to set mood and location. Dances were familiar to anyone that has seen the 1961 film. I will say that there was a slight dip in intensity compared to the film that I attribute to the camera work that just can’t be done on stage.

A couple of brief technical problems were hardly noticeable to most. A microphone activated a bit late or too much activity visible in the wings was a small price to pay for a generally good performance.

The audience seemed to appreciate West Side Story, one woman at intermission commented how the show was “delightful.”

While my wife wouldn’t use that word, Amy did agree that “West Side Story” was better than she expected. I’m inclined to agree.

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