West Side Story: Brave, New, Whirled

Local Arts Reviews

West Side Story: Brave, New, Whirled

Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre,

through August 13

Running time: 3 hrs

I'm walking away from the Zilker Hillside Theatre, I've just seen West Side Story, the 42nd annual summer musical staged there, and I'm thinking one thing: No way in hell do I ever want to work that hard.

Not as hard as the actors with their layered yakking and singing and seemingly random constant movements that turn into complex choreographies of even faster, fully synchronized and patterned movements. Not as hard as Robert Whyburn figuring out the proper candlepower and hue and timing of each of way too many lights for my shadowed mind to encompass. Not as hard as Stephen Moncus creating that fantastically multileveled and partly mobile tenement set out of wood and metal and wheels.

Not as hard as Shelia Hargett working up all those colorful costumes, Melisa May-Moncus handling the pyrotechnical dance numbers, and -- oh Lord -- especially not as hard as director Jay Jennings keeping charge of that entire avalanche of talent, and arranging all the diverse elements, making sure they fall precisely into their hundreds of proper places in his mind, first, and then onto the public stage, as if he's trapped playing some hell-spawned version of Living Tetris that'll last through all the months of rehearsal and remain to haunt his dreams for years to come.

You know?

I infer this amount of work. I have to imagine it, have to fall back on my own meager knowledge of backstage arduosity, because the production itself is so well-crafted it looks easy. It's West Side Story; it can't be easy -- that's a testament right there. And after a show like this, somebody needs to say "Hallelujah!"

Jennings has attempted to infuse this perennial favorite with a certain funky fresh flava by setting it in a "somewhat post-apocalyptic" future, and by casting Riff, the leader of the Jets, as a female. Riff-as-grrl works extremely well, partly because it's neither a coy nor overly played-up move -- gender, schmender, whatever -- and partly because Jo Beth Henderson kicks, to put it simply, major ass. She's got some voice, too, as does Roxane Alexander (Maria), Dennis Whitehead (Tony), all of the principals, all of all the actors, everyone working their craft so diligently that, well, see above.

The director's choice of futuristic setting does lead to one ill-fitting textural gambit. Near the beginning of the show, Riff, talking to Tony, mimes an allusion to The Matrix, and it plays so well on many levels: It's damn funny, it makes perfect sense that the characters would share that cultural touchstone, it cleverly adumbrates the violence to come, it even provides deeper resonance within the mildly cyberpunk milieu. Nice, real nice. But, sometime later, and then again, and then again, we're treated to some figure -- meant to symbolize death, see -- who moves around like Keanu Reevesí Neo, who is likewise dressed in that signature fashion, and it's this gambit that falls completely flat. Because, dammit, you can have characters alluding to a movie as a movie ... or you can have bits of that movie appear within your very story, as if it were part of the story's whole ... but you can't have both. It throws up a shattering paradox -- like the crew of the Starship Enterprise journeying back in time to Earth's present and seeing a "Beam Me Up, Scotty" bumper sticker on some car. It cancels itself out, it totally unsuspends the disbelief and leaves a bad taste on the mind's tongue.

Aside from that -- a quibble -- there was little but solid wonderfulness. And what can you say about West Side Story, anyway? Big musical productions like this, especially staged outdoors and for free, are kind of like, well, they're kinda slutty, aren't they? They want everybody to like them, they want to be down with the big audience, they want to please the crowd around them, and they'll do just about anything to achieve that goal. Like Anybody's, the Jets wannabe, right? And that's what all theatre's about, on some level -- except for those companies who want to please those audience members who are pleased by other audience members being shocked and/or confused. All we want is some acceptance, some kudos, some reward for doing such a good job, don't we?

Sincerely then, like one of the Jets tells Anybody's after she's done something courageous and cool for the gang: "Ya done good, buddy-boy."

And then some.

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West Side Story, Zilker Hillside Theatre, Robert Whyburn, Stephen Moncus, Sheila Hargett, Melisa May-Moncus, Jay Jennings, The Matrix, musicals

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