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Berkeley Playhouse’s West Side Story sings

“Stick to your own kind.” This Stephen Sondheim lyric could easily have issued from our own president’s mouth. Our ears have been filled with this directive lately. There is no escaping the contempt for human differences, and the message hat certain ethnic groups do not belong here. 

This is just one of the reasons that West Side Story is deeply relevant today.

All miked up and looking like teenage air traffic controllers, Berkeley Playhouse’s Sharks and Jets launch into Jerome Robbins’ classic opening, full of visceral contempt, conveyed by brilliant, balletic choreography. And the audience is held rapt, because the originality and daring of this musical still packs a punch.

A musical about juvenile delinquents? It still sounds wildly implausible. Its composer, Leonard Bernstein, called it “poetry set to music.” Set in the back alleys of New York’s crumbling West Side, it uses the city as its canvas, and the Sharks and the Jets, both gangs claiming ownership of a tiny piece of urban turf, as its subjects.

The now-legendary love affair between Tony (Will Skrip) and Maria (Ana Paula Malagon), briefly relieves the menace and tension. Younger fans may not know that West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, with every character echoing one from the Shakespeare tragedy. And be warned: this story does not end happily.

Winner of multiple Tonys and later the Oscar, West Side Story shone a light on timely issues that no one wanted to talk about, let alone see splashed across a stage:  grinding poverty, troubled youth, racism and street violence. Bernstein was well aware of these risks.

Naturally, the songs and dance numbers are the best part of this production. Gee, Officer Krupke was the clear audience favorite. The two lead voices of Skrip and Malagon, were stunning, displaying incredible range. Malagon, especially, had a beautiful tremolo. Her Maria was convincingly innocent and yearning. When they meet, “stars…stop where they are.”

There are a few missteps. This is a relentlessly dark tale, every moment poised on the brink of disaster. The actors must hold this sense of menace, and the tensions that go with it, throughout the show. Unfortunately, the opening number is manically cheery, with broad smiles all around. And this jarringly feminized incarnation of the troubled tomboy Anybodys (Jenny Angell) happily dances with boys.

Although he has a wonderful voice, Danila Burshteyn is not a primal enough Riff, who should convey an electric, leonine quality. And Will Skrip as Tony could use a pre-show dose of testosterone. His performance lacks the smoldering quality of a sexy bad boy turned ardent lover. Oddly, his singing revealed a persona brimming with gravitas.

Those problems aside, this cast is astonishingly strong musically, a must for this show, which requires operatic range of its leads. One could the raging throb of the mean streets, emanating from the players.

Should you go? Absolutely. Director Rachel Robinson has polished the show’s enduring charm to a high gloss.

Despite its subject matter, West Side Story is really about hope – for true love, for redemption, for home: “Peace and quiet and open air wait for us. Somewhere.” For many immigrants, America is that ideal somewhere. They built this country. May they always feel welcome.

West Side Story runs through March 17 at Berkeley Playhouse, Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Avenue. Tickets are available at BerkeleyPlayhoue.org, and at (510) 845-8542 x351.

 

 

 

 

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