“West Side Story” – June 2, 2016

West Side Story—Sondheim, Bernstein and Laurents’ beloved 50s-era street-gang homage to Romeo and Juliet. Few American musicals are as widely loved and as over-performed.

Let’s face it, in America, it’s you can’t walk down a city street without seeing at least one poster for some upcoming production of West Side Story. There’s a reason for that, of course.

It’s that ‘West Side Story’ is a really, really good show.

But it’s not an easy show, and pulling it off requires a remarkable amount of talent, craft and theatrical panache. Which brings us to the Mountain Play, in Mill Valley, where West Side Story runs for three more weekends. Directed by Jay Manley, the sprawling production unfolds with admirable grace and energy, helped along, on opening day, by Mother Nature, dispensing a bit of classic Mountain Play magic.

You know the story.

Two teenage New Yorkers meet by chance at a tense interracial community dance. Tony is a former-gang member trying to go straight. Maria is a wide-eyed Puerto Rican émigré with dreams of becoming a “young lady of America.” Separated by race and tradition, their forbidden love sets in motion a series of events both hopeful and tragic. Now, for that all-important first-act meet-up to properly work, the audience has to feel the electrifying, fateful connection between and.

Hopefully, that electricity will come from the actors.

Sometimes it arrives in other ways.

On opening day, during the pivotal Tony-meets-Maria moment, a beam of sunlight broke through the low-hanging clouds, suddenly shining directly down on the star-crossed lovers.

Dressed all in white, the two literally began to glow as we all watched them fall in love before our eyes.

That’s the kind of unplanned trick of nature that puts the Mountain Play amongst the most popular annual theatrical events of the summer. Spectacle, as usual, is a big part of the draw too. Director Manley certainly pulls that off, with an amazing set giving us New York streets-and-alleys painted in moody purple, with random streaks of lamplight painted across the stage, approximating the feel of evening in the city.

The tale bursts into action with an athletic cast invading the stage, beautifully dancing and fighting their way through the famous opening succession of Sharks vs. Jets skirmishes. Aided by a first-rate orchestra under the direction of David Möschler, excellent choreography by Nicole Helfer and nifty fight-work by Zoe Swenson-Graham, the dangerous romanticism of “West Side Story” unfolds with maximum visual power.
As Maria, a strong-voiced Lym brings all the fiery giddiness one could hope for, and though Lee is much too old to play the teenage Tony, his full, operatic singing finds every scrap of melody in the gorgeous songs he sings. The rest of the cast, particularly Zachary Isen as reckless Jets leader Riff, David Crane as the simmering Sharks leader Bernardo, and Erica Lamkin as his girlfriend Anita, are all very good.

Whether or not the sun makes the same dazzling appearance in every performance, the cast and technicians bring plenty of their own light and emotional razzle-dazzle to this highly enjoyable spin on a true American classic.

‘West Side Story’ runs Sundays though June 19 (and one Saturday, June 11), at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on Mt. Tam. Visit www.mountainplay.org for all the information.

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