At first thought, the notion of a one-woman show in which the entire musicalWest Side Story
is re-enacted would seem suspect at best. After all, two of the most annoyingly overwrought theatrical genres are one-person shows and musical theater. Combining them would seem a recipe of disaster.
But West Side Terri, currently playing at Fullerton's Monkey Wrench Collective is anything but an exercise in bombastic overemoting. Conceived by and starring Terri Mowrey, one of OC's brightest theatrical talents, it's a 75-minute show that is frequently hilarious, occasionally poignant and eminently entertaining.
Directed by Christopher Basile, the workshop production (meaning it's continually being revised and tinkered during its run) manages to capture the arc of the 1961 Robert Wise-and-Jerome Robbins-directed film, which won 10 Academy Awards. It also provides insights into Mowrey's own life, particularly the crushing devastation she felt nearly 20 years ago after a miserable audition for the stage version at Orange Coast College.
Mowrey performs the show directly for the audience on a set that she describes as her actual living room. She continually breaks the fourth wall, as she both educates the viewer about the inner workings of the film version, as well as performing a great deal of the songs, dialogue and even choreography.
Along the way, she weaves in personal anecdotes about growing up half-Mexican and half-Anglo as well as the details of her laryngitis-stricken audition years ago, which resulted in a childhood dream long-deferred.
A few of the anecdotes don't work in their present form, such as revealing her first experience with closeted prejudice at the hands of Anglo relatives. It seems a bit forced and stalls the play's momentum.
But one in particular is fabulous, even though Mowrey really doesn't tell a story. It comes during the performance of the show's signature ballad, "Maria." As the score crescendos to its powerful finish, Mowrey rests her head against the wall and lets the music wash over her. The yearning on her face is palpable, and for a moment, she seems to embody the helpless devotion to the idea of true love that any lonely-hearted person on the face of the planet could easily understand. She tells a thousand words in that one image, and it's the play's most emotionally arresting moment.
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But mostly, this is a rollicking good time. Mowrey's love of West Side Story is readily apparent, but she's not such a die-hard fan that she can't resist goofing on some of the sillier aspects of the show, from rendering the brain-dead Officer Krupke as an incoherent Frankenstein's monster to parodying Richard Beymer's thinly portrayed role of Tony in the film by making him Keanu Reeves.
The sheer amount of physical activity that Mowrey must perform is astonishing in itself. She is a conductor, narrator, singer, actor and dancer all in the same moment.
But it's her ability to convey her personal passion for this story while also using it as a personal and theatrical redemption for herself that truly makes this one-woman show sing.
West Side Terri at Monkey Wrench Collective, 204 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (800) 838-3006. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 20. $10-$12.