Theater Review: ‘West Side Story’ opens at the San Francisco Orpheum

Last night, those first 45 seconds at the Orpheum were nothing short of breathtaking.

West Side Story Cast List: Matt Cavenaugh Karen Olivo Cody Green George Akram Josefina Scaglione Steve Bassett Kyle Brenn Joshua Buscher Mike Cannon Kyle Coffman Joey Haro Eric Hatch Curtis Holbrook Michael Mastro Danielle Polanco Jennifer Sanch
West Side Story Cast List: Matt Cavenaugh Karen Olivo Cody Green George Akram Josefina Scaglione Steve Bassett Kyle Brenn Joshua Buscher Mike Cannon Kyle Coffman Joey Haro Eric Hatch Curtis Holbrook Michael Mastro Danielle Polanco Jennifer Sanch
In Review

West Side Story

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars - 'Smashing'
Orpheum Theatre
Directed by David Saint
Starring Michelle Aravena, German Santiago, Kyle Harris, Joseph J. Simeone and Ali Ewoldt
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
October 27th through November 28th
shnsf.com
Review by
West Side Story Cast List: Matt Cavenaugh Karen Olivo Cody Green George Akram Josefina Scaglione Steve Bassett Kyle Brenn Joshua Buscher Mike Cannon Kyle Coffman Joey Haro Eric Hatch Curtis Holbrook Michael Mastro Danielle Polanco Jennifer Sanch
West Side Story Cast List: Matt Cavenaugh Karen Olivo Cody Green George Akram Josefina Scaglione Steve Bassett Kyle Brenn Joshua Buscher Mike Cannon Kyle Coffman Joey Haro Eric Hatch Curtis Holbrook Michael Mastro Danielle Polanco Jennifer Sanch

Revivals are difficult affairs. While on one hand, there is a pre-existing covey of die-hard fans, expectations are almost impossibly high. This is particularly true with a masterpiece like West Side Story where you know within the first 45 seconds of the Prologue whether the thing is worth sitting through.

Last night, those first 45 seconds at the Orpheum were nothing short of breathtaking. The first scene reminded me of a particularly dark, dark, version of the Nutcracker that I saw years ago in which individual rats emerged from every nook and cranny of the stage. Individual Jets emerged through shadows, through windows, from off-stage, creating a disquieting feeling as those first iconic horns sounded. Having thrown the audience off balance, the director immediately delivered what they expected: stellar, athletic ballet that seemed more than anything else to be happening off the ground. I don’t know how the dancers seemed to pause and stop midair, but the effect was nothing less than stunning.

The production that opened at the Orpheum last night was informed by Arthur Laurents who directed the 2009 Broadway revival. The script was slightly changed – updated for a grittier feel while still delivering on the original. These changes were thoughtfully chosen. The squeaky-clean Jets upping the ante to zip guns and knives may have worked in 1957, but are laughable in 2010. Laurent’s darker version maintains the audience on edge with the underlying violence, while keeping almost all of the original script intact. Some of the now-hackneyed language is offered up as irony, much to the appreciative hoots from the audience.

Karen Olivo as Anita and The Shark Girls from the Broadway Company Photo by Joan Marcus
Karen Olivo as Anita and The Shark Girls from the Broadway Company Photo by Joan Marcus

Laurents introduced new Spanish text to the songs and dialogue. Initially, this was vaguely annoying, but as it recurred I appreciated how it threw me (and presumably at least some other significant part of the audience) off-balance. Not understanding the words, I listened all the more intently, appreciating the degree of agitation and manic energy that just might not be possible to convey in English.

Other changes such as the buffoon social worker Glad Hand ineffectively calling “Abstinence! Abstinence!” throughout the high school dance scene reduced the audience to peels of laughter at the impossibility of defusing the sexual energy of the production.

Michelle Aravena and German Santiago were in top form as Anita and Bernardo. Both had enormous presence and delivery as the alpha pair of Sharks. At first blush Riff seemed palid, but this point of comparison might not be entirely fair as we could enjoy Anita and Bernardo riffing off each other.

Great efforts were taken with the lighting to emphasize shadows and light. While this was most obvious in the balcony scene where the shadows of Maria and Tony were cast down stage, I found myself watching more and more throughout for other instances of the same. This made for a rich production, as did the blending of color.

West Side Story will be in San Francisco only until November 28. This updated production clearly delivers. Thanks to these changes, West Side Story may be with us for another 50+ years.

West Side Story SHN Orpheum TheatreWest Side Story
Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco
4 out of 5 stars
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by David Saint
Starring Michelle Aravena, German Santiago, Kyle Harris, Joseph J. Simeone and Ali Ewoldt
October 27th through November 28th
shnsf.com

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Cy Ashley Webb
Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children's Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.
  • Lgbradford

    I did not give WSS 4 stars. Tony’s voice was too pallid compared to Maria’s exuberant voice. I had troubled with the Spanish infusion. It worked for emphasis, but I lost the meaning. The buffoon Glad Hand was exactly that. The lighting for the balconey scene worked when only Maria was lit. I enjoyed Anita’s firey performance and the Shark’s girl’s attitudes. I cannot comment anymore because we left after intermission which said more about what we, my daughter and I, thought about the production

  • Giovannamoreno

    Anita looked more Asian than Hispanic. Some of the jets looked gay and no matter how hard they tried they didn’t look as the tough gang members they where portraying.

  • beans_sf

    I would have to somewhat agree with Lgbradford. I also was disappointed in the production.

    As a dancer, I appreciated that the dancers and choreography was on point. However, I was disappointed in the casting for Maria. Her acting was alright, but her singing was a bit mediocre. I also thought her opera-like voice was a bit out of place in such an “urban” themed play and didn’t blend well with the other voices when they did duets. The main songs that should’ve dazzled the audience, received only a light polite clap. The only solo that got an exciting applause was Anita and the sharks’ girls song in the first act.

    Staging could’ve also been improved. It was alright when there were large group dance scenes, but when it came down to having 3 or less people on stage, the movement was so static and got boring really fast. Even the actors didn’t move their arms or anything. I wanted to yell out, “Move, move, do something!”

    Overall, I enjoyed hearing my favorite songs, but did not feel I got a $130 worth musical.

  • Nov 20th show

    Decent but nothing fantastic. Too much vibrato from Tony, not enough strength, also somewhat shaky on initially nailing the high notes. Maria was well acted and well sung, yet also as noted correctly above, too operatic and not done in the style of a musical.
    Weak orchestra…too few instruments.
    Good dancing, Bernardo and Anita were extremely well done.
    Do NOT like the Spanish lyrics/dialogue – you lose a ton of Sondheim’s artistry in the lyrics when you don’t understand what the singers are singing. At least in an opera there are subtitles!
    Additionally, pretty raunchy…do not bring children.
    Overall B-

  • Matt123

    I went to the 11/12 show and was extremely disappointed! I didn’t know at least a 1/3 would be in spanish! I don’t know spanish and took my wife who doesn’t know any either. Also, the “modernizing” was horrible. Trying to be more gritty and vulgar made it childish and stupid.

    • Whitefifi

      I totally agree!! my husband and I went last night (11-23) I was horrified at the ‘officer krupke scene’!! did not come to the city to see porn. The spanish all through, especially the last half was so annoying and made me angry. I would not recommend this play at all. As a woman in my 60’s I loved the original WWS! was great, but not disgusting.

  • twnzmom

    I was so excited to book my ticets for WSS in San francisco,only to be very disapointed. Tony and Riff were boring and I hated the Spanish lyrics. They changed the lyrics from “I feel pretty and witty and gay” to I feel pretty and witty and bright”. Yuck. How politcally correct do we have to be? I did not enjoy it at all,and my daughter and her husband left at intermission. I had seen the movie no less then 10 times,and this was no comparision. When the actors spoke,they enuciated their words too clearly-aren’t these guys in a gang?

  • Susanmozayani

    I was disappointed. Not much dancing and did not appreciate the scene involving gang rape of the Spanish girl. Especially got disgusted of the scene where one of the guys ejaculated, splashed his semen on others and ended with licking it off his fingers. This is not was an artistic theatrical show! We see this kind of trash on TV everyday. I like to take my daughters to learn to appreciate THEATER and ART. This was extremely inappropriate and disappointing.

  • itswhereiwanttobe

    I am saddened and disgusted. Saddened because my father spent his hard earned money to take his grandchildren to what he has always enjoyed and held in high regard: the theater. What he got was a pornographic rendition of an American Classic. The humor scraped the bottom in attempts for laughs. I would call on everyone to call their credit card companies and refuse to pay for such trash. There was no need to degrade this wonderful piece of theater by the addition of gang rape, masturbation, ejaculation and then licking it off his fingers. We didn’t need to pay $180 a ticket for such disgust, it’s not what you go to the theater for.

  • Spacecrazy

    This was the most disappointing production I’ve seen in a very long time. Normally I love stage shows, but this WSS was a complete train wreck that I’m thinking of asking for my money back. Besides the overtly gay twist, the horrible voices, horrendous casting, campy acting and pathetic production values, it was offensively bad. At least 1/4 of the theater left after intermission and I noticed a few who left shortly into the 2nd half. Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on this worthless trash, go rent the movie or better yet tell the producers of this insulting garbage that you’re not happy at wasting your time & money on junk like this.