Just under 33 years since its Broadway debut, "West Side Story" remains one of the most enduring, most American works in what is generally accepted as an American art form--the musical comedy.
Of course, this is no comedy, although the tragic tale of two warring juvenile gangs has its share of brilliantly funny moments. And this musical's roots aren't even American. The show is a retelling of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
An excellent Cabrillo Music Theatre revival of the show concludes Friday night at Oxnard Civic Auditorium, following three performances over last weekend. If justice prevailed, there would be many more opportunities to see the production before the scaffolding is removed from the stage.
When the play opened in 1957, what delighted most observers, and confused others, was the way librettist Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein, both 39, joined with 27-year-old lyricist Stephen Sondheim to create Broadway's first successful "musical tragedy."
Blending contemporary music with popular as well as traditional, operatic popular styles, the collaborators put street gangs in ballet shoes (figuratively, at least) and wrote a number of tunes that became well known even outside the context of the show. "Maria" became a hit single for Johnny Mathis, "America" a staple in the repertoire of the British rock band The Nice, and "Tonight," "Something's Coming" and "I Feel Pretty" remain concert and cabaret favorites.
The Cabrillo production is festive as all get-out, combining music, dance, drama and colorful costumes into a memorable concoction. Sean Moran designed the sets and directed; Becky Marzek is responsible for the beautiful and often-exciting choreography, and musical director Ilana Eden conducts a robust-sounding, 20-piece orchestra.
The music may be the most striking and (to Broadway ears of the time, at least) original aspect of "West Side Story." And Eden, her musicians and the singing actors pull it off artfully, even the rather sophisticated choral passages in "America," and "I Feel Pretty," and the lovely near-arias "I Have a Love" and "One Hand, One Heart."
The Jets' "Gee, Officer Krupke" remains a comic highlight of the show. The Oxnard cast sells the piece--which mocks sociological "justification" of crime--with elan to spare.
In creating his snappy, highly visual interpretation of the show, Moran takes some minor liberties with the script, perhaps the most noticeable being his actors' entrance in modern street clothes, changing into their costumes in full view of the audience on the bare-bones set, and the finale, which is staged somewhat differently from the original-- though the ending remains essentially the same.
This is truly an ensemble cast, with good to excellent acting and singing throughout.
The only gaffe worth noting concerns a dream sequence, in which ill-fated lovers Tony and Maria dance. Patrick Fields, a black dancer, portrays the "dream" Tony, while Charlie Jourdan, a white actor who plays Tony throughout the rest of the show, looks on with Maria (Shelley Styff) from the sidelines.
Fields and Heather Mathis, who dances as Maria in the sequence, were presumably chosen because they're better dancers than Jourdan and Styff. Fine, but the scene would have been less confusing if the players portraying Tony more closely resembled one another.
A minor cavil, that, about a top-notch production that's well worth seeing and hearing. But please learn from the poor example of many in Sunday afternoon's audience and leave your younger children at home: The show is 2 1/2 hours long, the kids won't understand much of what's going on.