Opera San Jose’s West Side Story Review

A dance in the gym ignites a high energy dance-off between rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks in Opera San José's production of "West Side Story" (April 16-May 1, 2022) at the California Theatre
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By Henry Etzkowitz and Chunyan Zhou

A punk with a swagger and a cigarette, leaning against a brick wall, takes us back to 1950’s New York City. His peers arrive, breaking into a jazz dance, followed by a second group and we have been introduced to the agonistic gangs, whose struggle over “turf” define an urban domain and overwhelm the countervailing power of love across ethnic boundaries. This is how Leonard Bernstein re-imagined Romeo and Juliet in post war America where a Puerto Rican influx was the latest group to disturb boundaries that rarely have time to harden before another ethic group arrives to challenge them.

Maria (Teresa Castillo) and Tony (Noah Stewart) secretly meet at the dress shop where Maria works, in Opera San José’s production of “West Side Story” (April 16-May 1, 2022) at the California Theatre

Thanks to all the staff for their careful design and dedication! The gray-toned stage set and the smoky atmosphere with alley props set off an intriguing sense of mystery. The strange and surprising rhythm of modern dance brings people into a new experience, it was powerful.

A rumble between the Jets and the Sharks escalates when Riff (Trevor Marin – L) is threated by Bernardo (Antony Sanchez- R) who pulls out a knife in Opera San José’s production of “West Side Story” (April 16-May 1, 2022) at the California Theatre

A struggle over turf by contesting ethnicities is age old and persistent, as in our current news in the struggle for access to Jerusalem’s el Aksa mosque, and in Ukraine on a bloodier and larger scale. In these instances, the sides are unequal, with a David and Goliath quality to the fight. In the fictional engagement between the jets and sharks, two equally matched opponents combat in the context of a higher  struggle to overcome  social differences through the power of romantic love and sexual attraction.   There is an adult supervising authority, the New York City police department but like the United Nations they lack the ability, and the intelligence, in the sense of knowledge of impending events, to deter conflict.  

Opera San José’s production of “West Side Story” (April 16-May 1, 2022) at the California Theatre

Before meeting the main characters we hear the chorus and watch the group dancing. These performances showcase the thoughts and attitudes of the two gangs towards each other. Their song and dance performances are very focused, creating an atmosphere of emotional incitement. 

What’s most impressive is that everyone in this show, from the  entourage cast to a few lead characters, is so skilled that it feels like the overall performance is near-perfect. Teresa Castillo performs as Maria. Her voice starts off excited, shy and timid, expressing the mixed emotions of a new immigrant. However, with the development of the plot, she begins to let go, and finally released herself completely when her lover’s death takes place. Noah Stewart (as Tony) portrays a gentle big boy who yearns for true love. His voice is transparent, clear, clean and bright, like a breeze blowing across our face, which is a refreshing sound of Heaven. Natalie Rose Havens (as Anita’), with a soft and gentle voice, full of tenderness, but when she’s angry, fearless, and a whole different person when she’s humiliated. Trevor Martin as Riff and Antony Sanchez as Bernardo showcase the leadership and responsibility of the two gang leaders respectively. There’s also Jared V. Esguerra as Chino and Philip Skinner as Doc and all others, everyone in the show was so good, that it’s hard to say who deserved the most praise. We believe that the audience’s long applause gives them the highest degree of affirmation and encouragement!

The Music is the story with the embellishment of dance, costumes, sets and staging. The New York modern style, that combined different styles of dance, strong, passionate, or sad, the music powerfully expresses a wide range of emotions. In addition, carefully designed sets, and even the process of changing the sets, become part of the performance. All in all, it was a heavenly feast, a perfect show.

Opera San José’s production of “West Side Story” (April 16-May 1, 2022) at the California The

In the real world, both the jets and the sharks are the working class immigrant cultures that generated a common response to waning adult authority and the emergence of a youthful alternative in the form of a gang, changed the urban class struggle.  The turf they contested was an “urban renewal project” by authority of the federal government on behalf of an elite cultural project, the renown Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, hosting the Metropolitan Opera  and the New York Philharmonic as well  as Lincoln Towers, an  upper middle class housing development, with one building reserved for a middle income cooperative to appease critics of gentrification. The original  West Side Story film shows  demolition work in progress.  In the San Jose performance, the working class  physical neighborhood is intact with drops showing exposed brick walls with fading advertisements for Coca-Cola and war bonds.  The Coca Cola sign is retouched by one of the youths, presumably employed for the purpose, inadvertently signifying neighborhood continuity rather than impending doom.

All photo credits: David Allen

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