Theater & Dance

Review
"West Side Story"

By: Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Directed by: Erica Wyman Abrahamson
Choreographed by: Kim Harvath
Fight choreography by: Zoe Swenson-Graham
Music direction by: Rich Reynolds
Featuring: Rachelle Abbey, Jeffrey Brian Adams, Armand Akbari, Richard Ames, Luke Arnold, Christine Baker, Shawn Bender, David Blackburn, Danielle Cheiken, Angela Curotto-Pierson, Jorge Diaz, Josiah Frampton, Jose Gallentes, Tucker Gold, Tyler Harding, Marty Lee Jones, Allie Lev, Joseph Macadaeg, Ana Paula Malagón, Katie Maupin, Carlos Nunez, Randy O'Hara, Fiona O'Neill, Danielle Philapil, Catherine Rieflin, Neil Rushnock, James Schott, Jack Swartz, Catherine Traceski, Victor Valasquez, Breanna Van Gastel, and Zanna Wei
When: August 30 through September 16, 2018
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City
Tickets: $35-$52; 650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org

Malagon, Adams
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Ana Paula Malagón as Maria, left, and Jeffrey Brian Adams as Tony in Hillbarn Theatre's production of "West Side Story." The show runs August 30 through September 16, 2018.
Hillbarn Theatre triumphs again
with 'West Side Story'
Fabulous cast and band deliver the goods,
helped by an excellent sound mix
September 6, 2018

Hillbarn Theatre has outdone itself with its production of "West Side Story," with an excellent cast, band, sound design, choreography, and costume design.

This is a great production of a great musical, one of the most important of the Broadway stage, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The songs have become standards. "Jet Song," "Maria," "America," "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," "Gee, Officer Krupke" and others are part of the fabric of our musical minds. We've all heard them many times.

And this cast delivers them beautifully.

Jeffrey Brian Adams, the only Equity member of this 30-person cast, doesn't sing with much power, but his voicing of "Maria" is magnificent, if a bit too quiet, as he masters the incredible vocal challenges of Bernstein's melody line. He is a sincere and charming Tony.

Ana Paula Malagón, as Maria, has such a beautiful, stunning, powerful voice that crystal goblets shattered all over Foster City as she hit her high notes. She is an opera singer from Mexico who does an admirable job of blending her operatic training with the needs of a popular show. She is also very appealing as an actress, as the young girl who falls in love with the handsome Tony.

As Anita, Danielle Philapil is "hotter than a pepper sprout" (in the immortal words of Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber). Wearing a tight and beautiful red dress by costume designer Raven Winter, She is aggressively and confidently sexy, looking forward to being with her beau, Bernardo (handsome and strong actor Jorge Diaz) after the coming gang fight.

Winter's costumes, Kim Harvath's choreography and Pamila Gray's lighting design make for a beautiful scene when the Jets women arrive at the dance, twirling their colorful dresses out of the darkness and into the light. It's like a pastoral scene from "Fantasia," only live and right in front of the audience's delighted faces.

Cute costuming: The Jets wear white Chucks; the Sharks wear black Chucks; Tony, caught in the middle, as a Jet in love with a Shark woman, wears gray Chucks. The Jets women wear tan pumps to the dance; the Sharks women wear black, strapped high heels.

"West Side Story" is loosely based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The idea of modernizing the tragic romance and filling it with beautiful music and dance came from Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the show. It opened on Broadway in September 1957 and ran for 732 performances over almost two years.

Instead of Montagues and Capulets, there are New York street gangs. On one side are the Jets, who are mostly Irish and Polish. On the other side, Puerto Ricans. The two sides fight over their street turfs.

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Maria, newly arrived from Puerto Rico, is expected to marry her brother Ramone's friend, Chino (Jose Gallentes), although, as she tells Anita, she is not in love with Chino. Tony, who has begun to grow out of being a gang member, comes to a dance, and when his eyes meet Maria's, sparks fly.

And trouble ensues. "Romeo and Juliet" is a tragedy, after all.

Erica Wyman Abrahamson, one of many former "Beach Blanket Babylon" cast members to work at Hillbarn, did an excellent job directing the huge cast. Rick Reynolds directed the fine, 14-piece orchestra, which was heard but not seen from its loft at audience right.

Hillbarn has had trouble with the sound mix in the past — especially with the band overwhelming the singers — but on opening night, the mix was just right, presumably thanks to sound designer Grant Huberty. It was bliss, to hear both the music and the singers so clearly.

The set is unfortunate. It looks like it was slapped together with stuff left over from previous shows, and maybe some junk found in an alley. It is an anomaly, both for Hillbarn and for scenic designer Ting-Na Wang. She has done much better work elsewhere. Maybe it was a budget issue. The floor looked great, though, with a painted-in New York manhole cover.

Overall, this "West Side Story" proves again that Hillbarn has become one of the very best houses for musical theater in the Bay Area.

Special note: I had to leave at the intermission, so missed the second act. I have crippled knees, and the horrid seat I was assigned was making them hurt more. The good news is that this will be the last production with that particular seat, according to Hillbarn Executive Artistic Director Dan Demers. By the time "Noises Off" opens on October 11, it will be replaced. "Noises Off," by the way, is one of the funniest shows in the history of laughter.

Email John Orr at johnorr@regardingarts.com

Lev, Philapil, O'Neill
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Allie Lev as Estella, Danielle Philapil as Anita, and Fiona O'Neill as Francisca, from left, in Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “West Side Story.” The show runs August 30 through September 16, 2018.
Frampton, Van Gastel
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Josiah Frampton as Riff, center left, and Breanna Van Gastel as Graziella, center right, in Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “West Side Story.” The show runs August 30 through September 16, 2018.

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