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Jerome Robbins' Modern Day R&J is a Sweet Celebration Hot

Denise Battista
Written by Denise Battista     March 18, 2008    
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Jerome Robbins' Modern Day R&J is a Sweet Celebration

Photos: Erik Tomasson

Our devotion to West Side Story has only grown stronger over the past fifty years. This modern day—perhaps not so much anymore—adaptation of Romeo and Juliet got its musical start on Broadway back in 1957. We fell deeper in love with the star-cross’d Tony and Maria in their 1961 screenplay, starring Richard Beymer and the unforgettable Natalie Wood, and with continuing thanks to Jerome Robbins’ choreographic (and directorial in the ‘57 and ‘61 productions) panache, our nostalgia continued with his 1995 premiere of West Side Story Suite. The San Francisco Ballet celebrates its seventy-fifth year as the “oldest professional ballet company in America,” and as part of their celebration, offers a well-deserved tribute to Robbins, who passed in 1998. SF Ballet showcases a trilogy of Robbins’ work, including the footloose sailors of Fancy Free, the starlit lovers dancing In the Night (both of which deserve a grand nod for technical and theatrical charm), and for the clincher, the evening commences with West Side Story Suite, with a dream-like ending and pieces from this American musical anthem that will stay with you for days to come.

There’s undeniable romance lingering between the grand and golden decadence of the War Memorial Opera House and the story on the stage. Oliver Smith’s scenic design is simple yet mesmerizing, featuring fire escapes that climb the heights of the stage, chain-link fences and streetlamps. Smith’s set design is beautifully compact, creating a small corner of Manhattan’s West End in the center of the stage. Sets open—pull apart, really—creating pictures within the pictures we’ve already experienced, and in the end, it’s almost as though we’ve come through the rabbit hole, but this time into a bittersweet lucid dream of place, time, and forgiveness.

Costume Designer Irene Sharaff dresses the Jets in blue jeans and tee shirts, colorful A-lines in primary colors, white sneakers and short pumps. No tutus or slippers allowed. The Sharks are distinguished by masculine black and red, or vibrant purple and hot pink skirts and cardigans, most notably Anita’s signature purple head turner. I could have sworn that was Rita Moreno swinging her hips and stomping her feet center stage as she belted out “America,” but in this case, Katita Waldo is the next best thing. Waldo not only embodies her role, she reaches deep down and pulls out the fire and voice needed to pull off Anita.

While this company’s ability to dance is never in question, offering a smooth and almost flawless merging between classical ballet and classic Broadway, the incorporation of movement and lyric is awkward and most times distracting. While Waldo executes her role well enough, others are left breathless by the song and dance routine. We all love Riff (West Side Story’s version of Mercutio), but Damian Smith’s rendition of “Play It Cool” only looks cool. While I offer accolades for everyone’s character development, overall vocalization is lacking. Mind you, these dancers are not used to speaking let alone singing on stage. Even so, you have to give props to Waldo and Smith for giving it a go. Luckily, we know the words to each and every song, so the lost riff here or there has a way of inviting the audience to participate, even if it’s just in our nostalgic minds.

Cheryl Ossola, who writes the notes for this production, makes mention of the difficulty, or “hitch” in producing West Side Story Suite.

“First, the dancers must be able to sing… Typically, professional singers perform or augment some songs, but in San Francisco Ballet’s production, company members perform all of them, including two that are sung from the side of the stage (“Something’s Coming” and “Somewhere”) while other dancers perform the choreography.”

Rory Hohenstein as Tony delivers enthusiasm, jazzy steps, and the wide eyes you’d expect from a boy who’s knows “something’s coming something good” if he can wait. It’s unfortunately difficult to keep eyes on Hohenstein when an accompanist dressed in black enters stage right and sings the lyrics with his own air of enthusiasm and expressive hands. Tony’s scene is all but lost in the back and forth, while the accompanist would have served the scene better by performing in the wings.

The dancers achieve perfection during ensemble pieces. “Mambo!” is exchanged back and forth across the stage before the Jets and the Sharks dance in a colorful fury, whirling and twirling to Leonard Bernstein’s beloved music. Choreography for the rumble is immaculate as Smith and Ruben Martin as Bernardo battle to the death. When Hohenstein and Ludmila Campos as Maria see one another from across the crowded room, they are magnetically drawn together as the world around them becomes a dreamlike state—a hazy and unpronounced backdrop to their vivid love at first sight. It almost seems like smoke and mirrors, but it’s more so a matter of Smith’s moving set design and the hypnotic nature of Bernstein’s music, performed by the critically acclaimed San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under the spell of music director and principal conductor Martin West. If anyone in this production deserves a standing ovation, it’s West and his orchestra. The music comes off without a hitch.

It’s all really quite beautifully, nostalgically, wonderfully sweet. And somehow, someway, it takes us to a somewhere of simpler times. In Robbins’ Suite, Tony and Maria live. There’s no dagger; there’s no poison; there’s no piercing shot in the dark. The stage opens to a green and golden backdrop, to a somewhere where Sharks and Jets are just people who can hold hands and accept one another even without the push of tragedy. It opens to a place of peace. Wouldn’t it be nice…

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