Produced by: City Lights Theater Company
Featuring: Katherine Dela Cruz, Max Jennings, Josiah Frampton, Sean Okuniewicz, Jeremy Ryan, Darrell Hubbard, William Corkery, Melissa Baxter, Nick rodrigues, Jomar Martinez, Dominic Dagdagan, Chris Antunes, Paul Estioko, Danielle Mendoza, Naomi Evans, Yuliya Eydelnant, Amanda Nguyen, Suzanna Dinga, Zoey Lytle, Sara Frondoni, Jenni Chapman, Lillian Kautz, Brittany Pisoni, Frank Swearingen, Howard L. Miller, George S. Gemette
Directed by: Lisa Mallette
Choreograped by: Jennifer Gorgulho
Music direction by: Katie Linza
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: July 16-August 30, 2015
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose, California
Tickets: $17-$34 (discounts available). Opening night is $19-$35 (sold out). Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200.
Staging a musical as huge as "West Side Story" in as small a venue as City Lights in San Jose qualifies as a bit of a nutty idea, but, happily, the theater world tends to embrace nuttiness, and the production that opened there on Saturday night is well worth seeing.
Actually, it is a must-see, for the choreography by Jennifer Gorgulho, and the dancing and singing by the 23 dancer/singer/actors. (There are another three actors who do not, I think, dance.)
It is thrilling to see all those talented young performers strutting and dancing and sweating (in some cases, copiously) for us, to Leonard Bernstein's magnificent score. There are 100 seats for the audience, and the view is good in every one.
Certainly there is the "Jet Song" ("When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way, From your first cigarette till your last dyin' day") and "The Rumble," but my favorites were "The Dance at the Gym" and the Finale, because I love what Gorgulho does with the "Puerto Rican" dancers who in this show seem to be of several heritages. Some of them might even have some Puerto Rican blood, who knows? I was tickled to see Amanda Nguyen, with blond hair, as one of the Shark women.
Other notable songs from this brilliant 1957 musical which pretty much changed musical theater for the better include "Maria," "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty" and "Gee, Officer Krupke." Lyrics, by the way, are by Stephen Sondheim, his first big Broadway success.
In 1947, Robbins had the idea to make a musical based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The original idea was to pit Jewish and Irish street thugs against each other on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the Passover/Easter season, and it was going to be called "East Side Story." Over the years, different creatives became involved, and by the time the show got to Broadway in 1957, the warring factions were a group of thugs from older immigrant families, and thugs from the newly arrived Puerto Ricans.
They are battling over a bit of street, and all kinds of prejudices burst out. Instead of Montagues and Capulets there are Jets and Sharks.
"West Side Story" has, perhaps, about one degree more of a happy ending than does "Romeo and Juliet."
Plus, "West Side Story" has all that fabulous music, and lots of dancing.
Some dancing is more sexy than other dancing, and some dancers just bring more of that sensuality to what they do when they move. Gorgulho put lots of sensual steam in the Latin dances especially, and what a joy it was to see it.
And these dancers always remembered they were in character their characters stayed alive while they moved, which is not always the case in musicals. Danielle Mendoza as Anita, notably, made it work. Close my eyes, I can still see the look on her face during the finale. Wowsers.
Bernstein's music, of course, is fabulous, and I do not begrudge director Lisa Mallette and music director Katie Linza for using recorded tracks. For one thing, there is no more room left at City Lights (as it is currently configured) to put that big an ensemble. For another, everything on music tracks is always in the right key, because it costs so much money to rent the things that you can bet they are done right.
Katherine Dela Cruz, who has a beautiful, powerful voice, and who is a fine actor, was excellent as Maria. She yearned for something she couldn't define; she was mesmerized when she met the love of her life; she celebrated being in love. It's good to see this petite powerhouse in another lead role; she was excellent in "Miss Saigon" at Palo Alto Players in 2013.
Max Jennings as Tony, the love of Maria's life, is a fine, handsome actor, but doesn't entirely have the vocal chops for this part (very few singers do). He has a fine, pretty tenor in the higher register, but doesn't do very well on the lower notes, and Bernstein's score for the song "Maria," for instance, is quite difficult. And, Jennings does not project well enough to sing with Dela Cruz. She is someone built for the stage, and reaching back to the cheap seats. Jennings is built for singing through microphones, and all this show uses are stage mics, not face mics.
There were times when we could see his mouth moving, but all we could hear was Dela Cruz.
Still, Jennings brought the goods as an actor, putting good-guy Tony on the stage.
Josiah Frampton was a stand-out as Riff, the current active leader of The Jets. He was in character from moment one and carried on with excellence. Many of the rest of the gang members needed 10 or 15 minutes to fully get into character (opening night jitters, perhaps?), but all got there before long. Frampton was a treat as Patsy in City Lights' 2014 production of "Monty Python's Spamalot."
Jomar Martinez as Chino was excellent in his very brief bits. He's confused that Maria doesn't want him; he's jealous and hurt when she picks the white guy; he is quite good through the climactic moments of Act II.
Zoey Lytle is tall, beautiful and graceful, and has a lovely voice to start the song "Somewhere." Melissa Baxter is the tomboy Anybodys, who dresses like a boy, but moves beautifully in her dance moments.
William Corkery as Baby John is a little more pudgy than most of these slim, deer-like creatures, but is a revelation as a dancer, with a full-on commitment to what he's doing.
Overall, a very good cast, especially the younger singer/dancers.
Among the older guys, George S. Gemette as Doc has one of the best dramatic moments in the show. Howard L. Miller was rather bland as Sgt. Krupke, but fun as Glad Hand. Frank Swearingen, who plays the racist, manipulative Lt. Schrank, is returning to the stage after 29 years away, during which time he became a sergeant in the San Jose Police Department.
The set is another clever, creative construction by City Lights' excellent resident scenic designer, Ron Gasparinetti, easily tranforming from tenement streets to the insides of a dress shop, a bedroom and other places. Miranda Whipple's properties design helped with that. Sound designer George Psarras brought the sounds of the city when appropriate. Costume designer Melissa Sanchez put The Jets in street clothes of the 1950s (more or less), and The Sharks in shades of purple and lilac. Nick Kumamoto did a fine job with lighting.
Kit Wilder, who has done pretty much everything at City Lights, from writing plays to acting, was the fight director, and the fights were fun to watch.
It's not a perfect production, but it is a very good one, and it is thrilling to see it in that small place. An impressive job by director Lisa Mallette, who is executive artistic director at City Lights.
Tickets are selling briskly and the show has been extended by a few performances; I urge you to get your tickets before the show ends its run on August 30, 2015.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org