By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the Anaheim summer of 2012, with cops shooting reputed gang members and protests flaring in the streets, will be slapped with the irony of a theater in that city mounting a production of a play steeped in gangs, cops and murders.
That irony is not minimized by the fact the theater in question, the Chance, is located in Anaheim Hills, which is far more Yorba Linda than downtown Anaheim, and the show is the classic 1957 musical West Side Story. Sure, the characters still speak in 1950s lingo such as "daddy-o" and "buddy boy," the worst insult one can hurl is "chicken," and a story about an inner-city gang feud that doesn't involve automatic weapons or drugs is more than a touch archaic.
But there's one undeniable connection between the original and this gritty, sexually infused production: In the 1950s, cops were quite capable of being racially profiling, overbearing pricks who often made bad situations worse. Connect the dots from then to now yourself.
Yes, the cops in West Side Story are merely supporting characters against the backdrop of the feuding gangs—the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white, lower-class Jets—and the burgeoning Romeo and Juliet-like romance that sets the tragic events in motion. But the roles they play are significant. The bumbling street officer Krupke is a plump, waddling enforcer content to crack any skulls that come his way. But the force symbolized by the plainclothes Lieutenant Shrank is far more serious, supplying the institutionalized racism and heavy-handed aggression that keeps the gang fuse lit.
Shrank is the one character with real power in this play. And its most dangerous. The racial invectives he spews at the Sharks ("spick") and the Jets ("tinhorn immigrant scum"), his desire to use the white Jets to help gain him a promotion, and his constant threats to beat the living crud out of anyone who doesn't see it his way all contribute to the tinder-box flaming in the streets. Yes, the gang members are delinquents at best and criminals at worst, but, in light of Shrank, it is hard to not ask where they learned their racism and propensity for violence.
Though Shrank (convincingly played by Michael Grenie) is the play's vilest character, West Side Story is about much more than him. And under Oanh Nguyen's skilled direction, this production amply displays that. It's hard to make a show that is so recognizable feel fresh and compelling, but Nguyen admirably succeeds. The romance between the former head of the Jets, Tony (a perfectly restrained Keaton Williams), and Maria (a fresh and ebullient Gina Velez), the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, can often seem perfunctory in many productions, but here it feels fraught with passion and impending doom.
And the excellent work of the actors portraying key supporting roles manages to elevate this from a play about a bunch of wise-cracking street hoodlums to something much more. The white kids come from broken households but still yearn for a more productive life; yet with no present and little future, they resort to a territorial pissing contest against the Puerto Ricans. The Sharks, though brown-skinned immigrants, share a similar conflict: They yearn for their island home but also realize the potential of life in America. But bullied by the cops and called lice and cockroaches by the Jets, they seem just as trapped in the spiral of street-level violence.
This production is able to mine the deep currents swirling beneath Arthur Laurents' book and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics through earnest, vigorous acting and superior production standards. According to the program, this is "one of the world's first shows where LED lighting has replaced all conventional lighting fixtures." Lighting designer KC Wilkerson has a lot of cool toys to play with, and the design is suffused with textures and colors that visually illustrate the dark, foreboding sense of this play.
Kelly Todd's sinewy choreography stylistically captures the bursting hormones at work in this play about young adults, which manifest in both orgiastic, chest-heaving routines and if-we-can't-fuck-we'll-fight numbers. And Nguyen's choice to use the entire space in this quasi-theater-in-the-round staging results in a production in which actors are in the audience's face as well as hovering above. This is no dinosaur wheeled out by the Chance to drag asses into seats; it's an innovative, gripping staging that once again shows how much the Chance has grown in 13 years.
And it ends on a quite telling note. After the play's last murder, when the gang members, their girls and even the cops realize their culpability in the bloodletting, each character drops to the ground, symbolizing how a part of them has died in the course of this story. And that may be the most effective point of this powerful staging. It's easy to point fingers when a neighborhood is enmeshed in poverty and violence: aggressive cops, violent thugs, bad parents, a fucked-up system. But when you get down to it, a community is an organism. When a part of that organism is cut off or withers away, it affects the entire body. At some point, it takes every part to come together in order to heal.
This review appeared in print as "Warriors, Warriors! The Chance's staging of the retro West Side Story weirdly reflects the current tensions in Anaheim."