Arts & Culture News

West Side Story at the Music Hall Proves Quite the Statement Piece

The show is set in New York in the '50s. The original Broadway production was in 1957. But sitting in the Music Hall at Fair Park last night, I felt sad at how much the heart of West Side Story still rings true today.

Sure, you don't find many gangs dancing it out in the streets -- although there are some incidences of teenagers challenging one another and their associated dance crews... But barring the snapping, the high-waisted, belted jeans, and mid-century lingo, West Side Story could be today.

It would be better if it didn't feel so relevant; if it didn't feel like some sort of After School Special about immigration and racism and gang rivalries. It would speak more highly of us as human beings, as supposedly evolved (or at least evolving) human beings. But it does feel relevant. Stirringly relevant.

West Side Story is a great piece of classic Broadway theater. In case you're unfamiliar with the story, it goes pretty much like this. Two rival, racially delineated gangs struggle for control. Boy meets girl. Girl, Maria, is Puerto Rican. Boy, Tony, is not. Girl's brother, Bernardo played with finesse by hunky German Santiago, is a Shark. Boy is a Jet (or a former Jet any way.) In the big rumble, Girl's brother kills a Jet, Riff, played with aplomb by Drew Foster. So, Boy kills girl's brother. Fellow Jet, Chino, later kills Boy for revenge. No one lives happily ever after.

As for this Dallas Summer Musicals production, the show remains true to the original. The costumes are as traditional West Wide Story as you can get, swishy skirts and tight jeans and all. Sets were minimal but perfectly effective, plenty of fire escapes and impressive "under the bridge" set pieces.

The scene in which Tony and Maria sing "Somewhere" on a bare stage, the lighting works almost like a set piece, crafting the mood as well as the backdrop of silhouettes. It's a stark, heartbreaking scene. One of the best in the show, certainly the most beautiful.

Evy Ortiz was cast well as the naïve Maria and Ross Lekites was a hunky and believable Tony. And both with such incredible voices. Michelle Aravena as Anita, while very talented, read a little old, considering she's supposed to be a high school student.

One particular standout of the supporting cast was Alexandra Frohlinger as Anybodys, the young girl who wants desperately to be one of the Jets. Unfortunately, the microphone first went bad and then completely out doing her solo, as it did to a number of performers. Argh.

But barring the technical difficulties, she was wonderful as the boyish girl, looking every bit the baby dyke. Tough and committed and wily, she is thrilled when she finally gets recognized for her good work as a "spy" for the Jets.

The character of Anybodys seems even more interesting today when issues of gender are more volatile than ever. In a story so steeped in classic images and definitions of male and female, she stands out, fighting to be true to herself rather than society's expectations for her.

I found it particularly difficult that she was present when Anita is raped at Doc's. (A very graphic and uncomfortable scene in this production.) Anybodys only loyalty is to The Jets, to the boys, at a moment when allegiance to her gender was imperative. Her presence made it all the more clear that she was desperate beyond all else to be accepted as (if not to actually be) "one of the guys" at any cost.

With such traumatic elements, there is still a bit of comic relief in the show. First, when the girls tease Maria during "I Feel Pretty" and later when the boys pretend to be Officer Krupke in, what else, "Officer Krupke." It's bits like those that date the piece and remind you when the show is actually set. They first read silly and predictable, yet end up feeling classic and familiar -- something many theatergoers adore in their musicals.

The racism in the show that mirrors what goes on still today is alarming. The hatred -- and lack of desire to understand someone different from oneself -- is palpable. And the suggestion that those new to the US are intruders, that they are to blame for job loss and poverty and whatever else is handy is all too familiar.

"I've got the badge. You've got the skin," Lt. Schrank, played aptly by Mike Boland, says to Bernardo. It could be any officer in any state asking any person of a certain color for proof of citizenship. If you let yourself go there, it's chilling.

But the piece that is the most painful is how the Jets have forgotten that their own parents or their grandparents or their great grandparents were immigrants once too. We're a country of immigrants who are intolerant of immigrants.

Yes, it's a musical where they sing and dance instead of walk and talk. But if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to look beyond the curtain, what you'll see is chilling really. Even more so, because while West Side Story is half a century old, the story is even more of a valuable antique.

Yes, it's the story of Romeo and Juliet. In the show, Maria even appears on her balcony with her Romeo below. But it's more than that. It's a reminder of how blind and ugly hate is. "You can't hate someone whose story you know," someone once told me.

Yes, it's the State Fair of Texas musical and many people went without their theater manners, presumably still hopped up on sugary concessions and Midway adrenaline. But you just have to force yourself to ignore the loud talkers, late comers, and seat bumpers and grabbers. Once you do, seeing West Side Story on an actual stage reminds audiences it's really not a State Fair but a "What Is Fair?" musical.

Everyone has a (West Side) Story, and the right for it to be heard and recognized without violence.

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