Thoughts on West Side Story—and Life!
Shoppers in a mall have the eerie sensation of walking between two groups of guys staring at each other. A driver thinks he recognizes a rival gang member in another car, opens fire, and kills a father and two sons returning from a ball game. A ten year old girl answers a knock on the door and is downed in a hail of bullets: wrong house! Gangs today are a sad fact of life in metropolitan areas, and whether someone is a gang member or an innocent victim, gang violence tears lives and families apart.
Unless, of course, viewing West Side Story at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco, an unlikely place for a play about down and out kids of different backgrounds fighting it out for domination. Built in 1926, and modeled after a Spanish palace, it is fancy. It is lavish. It is ornate. It is beautiful. With a BART station right at its front door, it is a grand and most accessible place to see great theater in San Francisco.
And the play—a loose tribute to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Capulets and Montegues? Sharks and Jets?), while following the gangs and violence theme, seems far removed from jarring headlines. The dancing and singing are excellent, powerful, and elevate the gang motif above the brutal grind of the daily news. At first, West Side Story is to gang reality as ballet is to walking.
However, the whole play is like a downward spiral, bringing us closer and closer to real life. Beginning with the big picture where we meet the gangs, the neighborhood, the background of conflict, the play gradually narrows down to a few characters, and then two, then ultimately one—Maria—left to mourn the tragic turn of events that killed both her brother and her beloved.
And therein lies the relevance of West Side story to modern America. We can delight in the muscular, active dance routines; we can ooooh and ahhhh at the great music, the fine lyrics. But by the end, we are involved in circumstances every bit as gritty and tragic and sad as the daily news. This forced transition from fantasy to reality is what makes this a truly great play.
Bruce Roberts may be reached at email@example.com.
See what’s happening at the Orpheum Theatre: http://www.shnsf.com/