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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Manhattan Melodrama

“WEST SIDE STORY” SHOWS ITS AGE in many ways. Language that seemed hip 60 years ago has been replaced by terms even more evanescent. What seemed like credibly horrible behavior back then also has been eclipsed. And the music, steeped in jazz and Latin rhythms, is now as quaint as an old Paul Whiteman recording. Yet each of those elements endures – thrives, even – in the context of this show. It hit the boards in 1957, garnering excellent reviews, reviews that particularly praised Jerome Robbins’s direction and choreography.

Vanessa Becerra and Joseph Leppek
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
It’s difficult to think of the piece apart from his work, especially with the 1960 film version accessible. Julio Monge choreographed the current Glimmerglass Festival production, hewing as closely as possible to Robbins’s original movement, and doing so as one of the few authorized by the Robbins Rights Trust to do so.

Although the set (by Peter J. Davison, and more about it below) and the costumes (by Jessica Jahn) suggest a more recent time, you can’t pull the 1950s out of this show. It’s as specific to its time as a Gershwin show was to the ’30s, but “West Side Story”’s two Tonys and ten Oscars suggest how firmly it lodged in the public consciousness. Thus, while it ought to seem as antique as that Gershwin show, its central conflict has never been more up-to-date. Composer Leonard Bernstein was very vocal about his wish to effect change; perhaps it’s just as well that he’s not here to see how far we’ve backslid.

You know that the story draws from “Romeo and Juliet” its conceit of pitting two families against one another even as a member of each fall in love with each other. The supposed intruders are Puerto Rican immigrants. Their opponents have been off the boat only a little while longer. But, “Stick to your own kind, one of your own kind,” Maria is cautioned. It’s to no avail. Love doesn’t listen to such advice, love is no match against weapons fueled by hate.

Less than a decade earlier, Rodgers and Hammerstein observed that “You've Got to Be Carefully Taught” to believe in racism (and, like “West Side Story,” “South Pacific” has garnered its share of criticism for its putative practice of that which it proselytizes against), but there’s an added component to the thought you’re taught: you’re taught to hate downwards. Capitalism, as practiced by the so-called developed countries, thrives most when there’s an enemy afoot. Because humans are naturally social creatures, we’re taught to worship property and territory. Men are taught that women are a form of real estate. And we’re led to believe that we’re being robbed, in one way or another, by those who are poorer and darker than ourselves, when the hands plucking money from our pockets actually belong to those of significant power and wealth.

"Quintet": The Ensemble
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
With this in mind, the embodiment of villainy in “West Side Story” is Lieutenant Schrank, so plausibly played by Zachary Owen that you wish you could like him even as he further abuses his power each time we see him. His attitude has been fatally echoed by police confrontations throughout the country during the past few years, as America’s always-simmering racism returned to the boil during the tenure of our first black President, replacing him with one of their own kind.

To hate a Puerto Rican immigrant is to hate a fellow American, but, as the lyric in “America” puts it, “Nobody knows ... Puerto Rico’s in America.” And the cowardly, lethal non-response of the current administration to that island’s ongoing crisis brings that number too too up to date.

So we see the gangs square off at the top of the show. Actually, it’s an incremental confrontation, skillfully built of shifting dynamics. The opening has been mocked by those who find too incredible  the sight of a street gang member going into an assemblé – but kids have always danced. Formalizing it on stage makes for effective storytelling, and that opening shows us the scope of the conflict with mounting dramatic tension. By the time Riff (the dynamic Brian Vu) leads his cohorts in the “Jet Song,” we’ve gotten to know these people. Each character has a name, some of them descriptive (Action, Big Deal, A-rab), and each is unique, an important component of Francesca Zambello’s style of directing. There’s no chorus as such: it’s a collection of individuals who act in concert.

That the language of the Jets doesn’t seem horribly dated is a tribute both to the show’s popularity, which has drilled those songs into us so thoroughly that they’ve lost any temporal mooring, and to book-writer Arthur Laurents’s avoidance of what actually was being said at the time. “He knew that yesterday’s slang ages quicker than you can say Jack Robinson,” notes Stephen Sondheim, for whom this was his first professional theater gig. “What he came up with was a hybrid slang, a mixture of tough and naïve.” Which also served as a springboard for Sondheim’s lyrics.

As noted above, the production plays on Davison’s well-designed city street, where and old-fashioned building façade doesn’t quite reach the ground (an effectively disturbing effect) and an outside wall with fire escape rolls out to reveal Maria’s authentically appointed bedroom. Doc’s soda fountain (it’s a silver diner) flies in when needed, and a chain-link fence does the work for the rest of the scenes.

Kresley Figueroa, Brennan Martinez,
Vanessa Becerra, and Tesia Kwarteng
Photo: Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
Joseph Leppek and Vanessa Becerra play the lovers, Tony and Maria. Tony is psychologically aging out of the Jets, as we learn when he confides his new yearnings to Riff. Leppek plays his ambivalence well, so that in his climactic Act Two confrontation with Bernardo (Corey Bourbonniere), we believe the transition from idealist to thug. Becerra is a wonder. Everything about her is appealing – voice, movement, characterization – so it’s no surprise that this newly arrived immigrant is ready to defy her old culture’s customs.

And there are plaudits to rain on the entirety of the cast and other participants. Showstopper numbers like “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” rightfully bring down the house, even as “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere” tear your heart out. And all of it is done without the horror of microphones, a rare chance to hear a piece like this as it was intended.

The irony of “West Side Story” is that it changed the face of musical theater, but has done little to change the world it sought to heal. The liberals, the Democrats, the NPR listeners, the opera-goers – call them what you will. Like the bosses, they’ve grown complacent. Unlike the bosses, they don’t have an army of underpaid, brainwashed foot-soldiers to make sure that the wealth continues to travel in one direction. They stage some protests here and there, but in the end a too-large number of them can’t be bothered to get out and vote.

At this point, those wishing to see this superb production of “West Side Story” are already converted to its cause. Even so, the show should make you angry. The fact that its relevance hasn’t aged a jot should be enough to get you out there making sure that voters are registered and have rides to the polls. I think that we all like to be in America, so let this inspire us to continue its reclamation.

“West Side Story,” which is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, continues at the Glimmerglass Festival though August 24, 2018.

West Side Story
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Conducted by David Charles Abell
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Choreographed by Julio Monge
The Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
Alice Busch Opera Theater, July 16, 2018

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