Theater: Magic mountain

Elements of ‘West Side Story’ align for stunning Mt. Tam show

By Charles Brousse

There are many reasons for attending the annual Mountain Play. Free bus transportation will take you on a scenic ride from Mill Valley to the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, near the summit of Marin’s iconic Mt. Tamalpais. At an elevation of more than 2,600 feet, the air is bracing, and the views fabulous. You can buy food and drink from vendors, or bring along your own. Sit in the early spring sun, or under a shady canopy. Introduce the kids to show biz. In other words, it’s a fun Sunday outing, whatever the quality of the musical on stage.

This year is different. In addition to the listed non-theatrical attractions, West Side Story is a stunning example of the magic that can occur when all of the elements of a production are in perfect alignment. Despite gray skies that threatened rain, Opening Day’s large audience sat in rapt attention throughout the two-hour performance, vigorously applauded song and dance segments and rose spontaneously at the conclusion to show their appreciation. Standing ovations are rare at the Mountain Play. This one deserved it.

West Side Story stands in the top rank of American musical theater. Its lineage is about as impressive as they come. The book by Arthur Laurents is based on Shakespeare’s beloved Romeo and Juliet, possibly the greatest love story of all time. Leonard Bernstein, highly regarded for his ability to blend jazz elements with classical forms, contributed the superb musical score. Stephen Sondheim, just beginning his groundbreaking Broadway career, wrote the emotionally charged lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography was so original and compelling that it has been a template for all subsequent productions.

One would think that with such a pedigree, it would be difficult to go wrong, but the opposite is true. Every element has to be of the highest quality, or the show could come across as a dated, sentimental relic. Instead, the Mountain Play’s current version (its last was in 1999) hits all the right notes and has an aura of spontaneity about it that makes it feel as fresh and exciting as it must have seemed when it debuted in New York back in 1957.

To begin with fundamentals, producing musicals in a vast, stone-lined amphitheater, where voices and orchestral accompaniment can disappear into the open air or be muffled by a wind gust, isn’t easy. Thanks to the evolution of sound technology, those days appear to be over. Speaking or singing, voices come across loud and clear, and for the first time the orchestra (led by music director David Moschler) is positioned out front in a kind of shadowy sound box instead of being hidden behind the scenery. These improvements make a tremendous difference. Although I wondered about the purplish facades, Michael Locher’s scenic design captures the drab quality of a ’60s-era rundown Bronx neighborhood. Following tradition, costumer Heidi Leigh Hanson separates the rival gangs by color: Puerto Rican Sharks in red, multi-ethnic Jets in turquoise blue.

What really distinguishes this production of West Side Story is its mix of dynamic movement and beautiful singing. Much of the credit for the former must go to director Jay Manley, ably assisted by choreographers Nicole Helfer (dance) and Zoe Swenson-Graham (fight). Combining exuberance and precision, action scenes that feature too many talented performers to mention by name, are thrilling to behold.

Similarly, while not physically perfect for the role of Tony (Laurent’s surrogate for Shakespeare’s Romeo), Jerry Lee will be long remembered for his transcendent delivery of the great ballads, and Mindy Lym is a worthy partner as Maria/Juliet. Truth be told, the entire 42-member ensemble matches, or surpasses, just about anything you could find in a high-priced fully professional production—and, you get the fresh air and views!

One final note: Almost every Mountain Play offers something unique. Don’t expect it to happen every week, but on Opening Day, one Mark Press stepped on stage as the applause was dying down and proposed marriage to Mindy Lym. From the look of it, I don’t think she declined.

NOW PLAYING West Side Story runs through June 19 in the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.

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