Sunday, September 2, 2018

Hillbarn stages the timeless 'West Side Story'

Ana Paula Malagón as Maria and Jeffrey Brian Adams as Tony fall in love in 'West Side Story." (Mark & Tracy photo)

Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” four giants of 20th century musical theater created a timeless classic, “West Side Story,” being presented by Hillbarn Theatre.

The concept came from Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the 1957 original. He was joined by Arthur Laurents for the book, then-newcomer Stephen Sondheim for the lyrics and Leonard Bernstein for the memorable music.

Besides its own merits, Hillbarn’s production honors Bernstein’s centennial, which occurred only six days before the Aug. 31 opening.

Instead of the Bard’s feuding 16th-century Italian families, “West Side Story” focuses on feuding street gangs in New York City in the 1950s. One is the Sharks, who are recently arrived Puerto Ricans. The other is the Jets, who are mainland-born white Americans.

In his program note, artistic director Dan Demers writes of the show’s “unflinching engagement with contemporary concerns of racial unrest, urban gang violence, rape, immigration, and confrontations with the police.” He adds that the nation is still dealing with those divisive issues.

Caught between the gangs are star-crossed lovers Tony (Jeffrey Brian Adams), who founded the Jets but is pulling away, and Maria (Ana Paula Malagón), a Puerto Rican whose brother is a Shark. Their story doesn’t end happily.

Before it ends, though, the show offers some terrific dancing and one memorable song after another.

Music director Rick Reynolds adroitly leads the singers and 14-member orchestra through Bernstein’s intricate rhythms and soaring melodies.

Adams and Malagón have convincing chemistry and sing well alone and together. Malagón has an operatic voice she showcases in their touching duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” as well in ensembles like “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty.”

Other great songs include “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Somewhere” and more.

Director Erica Wyman Abrahamson, choreographer Kim Harvath and fight choreographer Zoë Swenson-Graham efficiently marshal the large cast on the small stage, overcoming the drab set by Ting Na Wang.

Costumes by Raven Winter and lighting by Pamila Gray complement the production, but the sound by Grant Huberty is spotty.

Eye- and throat-irritating theatrical haze (a lobby sign announces its use) unnecessarily permeates the stage and audience. 

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “West Side Story” will continue through Sept. 16 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.
For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit