West Side Story

BBB WSSTaylor Iman Jones & Alex Rodriguez, center right, as Anita & Bernardo

By Scott MacClelland

2015 MARKS the 25th year since the death of Leonard Bernstein and the 58th since West Side Story opened on Broadway. The score has lost none of its brilliance, power and emotion, as a large audience confirmed Sunday afternoon in the Broadway by the Bay production at Monterey’s Golden State Theatre. (Broadway by the Bay is based in Redwood City.) Some of the spoken dialog by Stephen Sondheim is dated but when the music starts up again that is easily forgotten.

The Golden State was built as a movie palace and not designed for big shows, concerts and opera, even though it has been used for such. So far, those limitations have historically vexed producers who aim for the stars. Broadway by the Bay is now in its third year at the historic Monterey venue and, according to spokesperson Lori Lochtefeld, loves it, though she hinted to me that work planned for the theater next year may interrupt their popular musical productions.

An attempt to make the stage appear deep, which it is not, was a central vanishing-point sliver of the set design which otherwise was a construct of industrial scaffolding and girders. Most of the entrances and exits came and went through the wings. The orchestra of 18 musicians was tucked up high above and behind the proscenium of the right side of the stage (as seen from the audience) and was amplified—too much—through large loudspeaker arrays at the extreme right and left of the stage. Despite excellent playing, the amplification distorted the sound, a worse problem during the first act that improved in the second. This affected the amplified voices as well though it seemed the actor/singers, by their own sensitivity or the sound manager, made it work better and better.

But I have to say that as the new lovers, Tony and Maria, fell for each other, the Jets and the Sharks squared off, Anita and Bernardo made clear their own passions and eroticism, Bernstein’s score never failed to glow with sensuality and “jazzy, Latin American, symphonic, balletic by turns,” to quote the LA Philharmonic program notation for the concert suite. The combination of counterpoint and Latin dance rhythms together with the orchestration (which originally was the work of another hand) was irresistible. The melodies Bernstein concocted were no less successful or true in his instinctive capacity to make the characters, principals and supernumeraries alike, believable and sympathetic. Like Puccini in La bohème and Madama Butterfly, Bernstein goes beyond musician and into the realm of magician. And in this case, absolutely American in character. The mambo at the dance is so authentic that it is often excerpted as an encore (find Gustavo Dudamel’s YouTube of it with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra). In the cameo pantomime of the first ballet, Tony and Maria dance a cha-cha. The song “Maria” is a tango, or more likely a Cuban habanera. As Riff instructs the Jets in “Cool” a fugue emerges, with snapping fingers, into the best jazz piece of the show. Breathtaking counterpoint between the gangs, Anita, Tony, then Tony joined by Maria, takes over the thrilling full-company “Tonight” quintet as prelude to the rumble itself.

Strongest vocally, as much as amplification revealed, were Samantha Cardenas as Maria and Taylor Iman Jones as Anita. Tony was sung by Brendan Quirk, Bernardo by Alex Rodriguez. (It must drive Latinos crazy to hear “Maria” sung by a gringo who can’t articulate the ‘d’ with the ‘r.’) Michael Birr was Action, Zachary Padlo was Riff. The large cast, 36 singer/dancers, were joined by four speaking-only roles. With the original dance and ballet, which included some fine additional choreography by Nicole Helfer, and the tear-jerking lyrical numbers, and Sean Kana’s orchestra, this was a full plate of Broadway entertainment.

You have two more chances to see it, this Saturday and Sunday.