West Side Story and A Little Night MusicReview – Stephen Sondheim’s Iconic Lyrics Resonate in Trump Era

Tony (WILL SKRIP*) and Maria (ANA PAULA MALAGÓN) perform together in Berkeley Playhouse's production of West Side Story, directed by Rachel Robinson. Performing at the Julia Morgan Theater from February 15 - March 17. Photographed by Ben Krantz Studio

Henry Etzkowitz and Alice C. Zhou

The love of middle-aged men and women does not seem to be inferior to young people. But it may be gentler, wiser and possibly less prone to disasterwhen embedded in cross cutting social ties that restrain its Protagonists from extremes. On the other hand, when lovers transcend the boundaries of opposing social groups, even the strongest of personal commitments may be riven by membership in warring oppositional groups i.e. cultures that cannot bear the transgression of a boundary crosser. Lacking actual physical barriers, boundary imaginaries, temporarily instantiated in the real world, are the subject matter of Jerome Robbins’ classic choreography, from the opening sequence establishing the mirror image identities of the Jets and Sharks to the final performance note. Love may not conquer, although a better world would surely ensue if it did!

Little Night Music, Photo: Courtesy of Lamplighters

This is the message that may be inferred from the medium of West Side Story and A Little Night Music, two iconic “popular operas,” in the Latinate sense of the term ‘Popular’ or of the people” as in “Popular cooperative,” that not only have a common subject matter but the same lyricist as their link. Couple love, with its dual tendency to polar opposition or unity, resulting in catastropheor bliss is lyricists Stephen Sondheim’stheme in twoclassic shows performed by the Berkeley Playhouse and Lamplighters, respectively. West Side directly channels Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Night Music celebrated Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream interpretation with Shakespearean roots. The dance and the voice are most beautiful ever we have seen at Lamplighters.  Everybody did their best, empowering this old repertoire (1973) with new vitality. 

Anita (VIDA MAE FERNANDEZ) and company perform together in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of West Side Story, directed by Rachel Robinson. Performing at the Julia Morgan Theater from February 15 – March 17. Photographed by Ben Krantz Studio

The Lamplighters, renowned for their interpretations of the late 19th century light opera critiques of British society, wished to display their skills in a more contemporary piece, while the Berkeley playhouse continued its regular mandate of reviving post-war Musical theatre. The peripatetic Lamplighters cycle from East to West Bay via Yerba Buena while the Berkeley group makes “music and theater come to life” in Julia Morgan’s century old classic California Craftsman theatre. 

The Berkeley Players performed Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story with passion and verve.  The show is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, the highly miked unspectacular individual singing voices that carry this production, delivered the strong intended emotional effect. West Side Story has good bones in the classic Romeo and Juliet tale of star-crossed lovers, whose feelings for each other, no matter how intense, cannot overcome irrational boundaries drawn between them.  The young actors on the stage are so real and energetic: dancing, singing, telling a vivid love tragedy, a modern Romeo and Juliet. The music and words are full of The Hispanic flavor and New York street argot of a vanished era. Those scene props brought us back to old New York’s West Side, those turbulent and passionate streets, familiar and friendly. 

Riff (DANILA BURSHTEYN) and company perform together in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of West Side Story, directed by Rachel Robinson. Performing at the Julia Morgan Theater from February 15 – March 17. Photographed by Ben Krantz Studio


The mid-century interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, is transported from feuding Italian clans to immigrant New York City in the era of the great post war Puerto Rican migration.  Ironically, the new arrivals view their predecessors, Europeans from Poland and Italy, unwillingly sharing turf with new arrivals as “Americans,” even though they still hold to a strong 2nd generation ethnic identity. The dichotomies of West Side Story are reflected in contemporary society in gated communities that separate people of a common economic background from other class levels. Indeed, it is telling that support for a border wall is strong among those who live in homogeneous communities. 

Bernardo (DAVID J. BOHNET) and company perform together in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of West Side Story, directed by Rachel Robinson. Performing at the Julia Morgan Theater from February 15 – March 17. Photographed by Ben Krantz Studio

West Side Story was originally intended as East Side Story, conflict between Catholics and Jews but creative juices did not begin to flow until news of an Anglo/ Hispanic conflict inspired transposition of the dichotomy to New York’s Puerto Rican and white ethnics (Polish/Italian) and thus West Side Story. Everyone has their own ‘West Side Story’ unless perhaps grew up in a homogeneous community but even there divides likely appeared on other dimensions, if not class than geek/athlete in local schools. Your reviewer, growing up in Catholic/Jewish (the original East Side story divide) High Bridge/Bronx, in the early post-war recalls, that he and his classmates were chased after Hebrew School, early evening, up the hill to Woodycrest Avenue, from the Jewish Community Center located on the Nelson Avenue border between the two communities. We were never caught, not likely due to our superior running skills but perhaps our pursuers did not wish to raise stranger enmity to the level of physical conflict. Nevertheless, the situation was sufficiently fraught to occasion a meet between Monsignor and Rabbi to cool the situation. In West Side Story, potential conciliators representing each side were lacking. Nor were there effective mediators or even intermediators.  Doc, the candy store owner, a hapless, anguished, observer, and the police officer who had the juvenile delinquent remit, lacking the opposing sides confidence, served as a fractured Greek Chorus of commentators and helpless interveners.

Tony (WILL SKRIP*) performs in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of West Side Story, directed by Rachel Robinson. Performing at the Julia Morgan Theater from February 15 – March 17. Photographed by Ben Krantz Studio


Inter-generational conflict is A Little Night Music’s binding theme. An upper middle class Swedish gentleman with a new young wife whose marriage has not yet been consummated and a son retuning to the family household, after studies, create a classic triangle. A Little Night Music is the enchanting story of three couples and their romantic machinations, set during the magical and romantic midsummer of Sweden at the turn of the last century.  Three ladies and two couples sometimes show up to explain and add a little comment, guiding the audiences to an in-depth understanding to the circumstances.   Barbara Heroux acts Madame Armfeldt as a noble, rich, wise, humorous old lady. Her performance is delicate, deep and infectious. Robby Stafford presenting a confused, intelligent, still charming middle-aged man, Fredrik. Carl Magnus (as William Giammona) shows a strong, brave and straightforward soldier. 

“Later”, “Remember?”, “You Must Meet My Wife”, and of course “Send in the Clowns” —— the show’s best-known and Sondheim’s biggest hit song, are our favorites.  

The ending is happy for everyone, as the generations are sorted into their traditional levels and tension dissipates. Old friends intervene to deescalate conflicts, threatening to get out of hand. Taken together, the shows illustrate the classic sociological distinction between the properties of dyads and triads, the tendency of the former to move to extremes of love and hate and the capacity of the latter to find solutions to conflict through the intermediation of a third element, the tertius gaudens.  Georg Simmel, the classical European sociologist has found his rightful contemporary interpreter in American Musical Theater’s Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Anita (VIDA MAE FENANDEZ) and Bernardo (DAVID J. BOHNET) perform together in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of West Side Story, directed by Rachel Robinson. Performing at the Julia Morgan Theater from February 15 – March 17. Photographed by Ben Krantz Studio

You can still enjoy West Side Story at the Berkeley Playhouse if you hurry, while A Little Night Music is no longer playing.

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