Sharks v. Jets 

Diablo Light Opera renders an impressive West Side Story.

Young Maria prefers dancing to church but, as her friend Anita warns her, "with these boys, you start out dancing, but you end up kneeling." In the new production of West Side Story helmed by Grant Rosen for the Diablo Light Opera Company, kneeling is kept to a bare minimum, the better to show off Rosen's considerable chops as a choregrapher and fight designer. Meshed with excellent visuals -- a dark, gritty set, beautiful lighting, and bright, sherbety dresses with contrasting crinolines -- this take on the Jerome Robbins musical is vividly cinematic.

It's also huge. There are often as many as forty people onstage at a time, there's a 21-piece orchestra led by Cheryl Yee Glass, and the set pieces stretch high into the space. Diablo Light Opera wanted to make a big splash with the first full production of West Side Story ever staged in the Dean Lesher Center, and it shows: This musical gets the full spectacle treatment. The dancing is great and marked by big showy numbers, while the fights are similarly flashy and intense. Not the sort of thing we get in the East Bay very often outside of the Willows' annual John Muir musical, and unlike Mountain Days, there's no livestock involved here.

What there is is a story so frequently told even a new audience member will be able to hum along with Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight" or break out with Sondheim's lyrics as Tony sings I just met a girl named Maria. What surprises in this take on the remake of Romeo and Juliet is how deep the antiracist message runs. It's hard to have a lot of sympathy for the Jets when they're constantly slagging the Sharks for being Puerto Ricans. You can feel the audience recoiling every time a Jet talks about how the "PRs" need to be taught a lesson, and at the performance I saw I was sure the audience was going to stone the bigoted cop Shrank. While the Sharks certainly have a measure of menace, Rosen also makes them more graceful: As the two gangs flood in for the big rumble, the Jets clamber over a wall while the Sharks effortlessly backflip over a high chain-link fence in an endless sinewy stream.

The singing, while generally excellent, isn't always as striking as the dancing, and is slightly uneven. Derek Lux as Tony can hit his high notes, for example, but not always with complete confidence, whereas while Meghann May's speaking accent as Maria is not always convincing, she has a flutey knockout of a singing voice. Besides the doomed lovers -- who have lovely chemistry -- vocal director Kelly Crandell gets a solid show out of the rest of his cast, although there are times when everyone is singing where it's hard to make out what's going on. The smaller group pieces, such as the Puerto Rican women singing "America" or the Jet boys doing "Gee, Officer Krupke" fare better.

But then, besides the dancing in general and the fight scenes in particular, "Gee, Officer Krupke" has to be the show's most entertaining moment. A batch of Jet ne'er-do-wells perform a hilarious sendup of all the institutions that purport to understand or control the lives of young people, acting out the parts of social workers, cops, and so on. The boys -- and a few of them really are: Brett Cashen, who as Baby John hilariously plays the judge who convicts Action (Brandon Bond), doesn't seem old enough to shave -- really shine in Rosen's fast-paced blocking, including a funny bit about a woman's breasts that defies description.

There are other funny moments -- Maria and Tony dancing with the mannequins in the dress shop; the war council at Doc's breaking up temporarily when a cop comes in, and all the gang members pretending to get along; Maria playing with her friends to the strains of "I Feel Pretty." Which is really the major difference between West Side Story and its inspiration: Romeo and Juliet is not known for its light moments. The grief and death start early in Shakespeare's Verona, a town not known for its dances and malt shops. When Arthur Laurents and his musical collaborators Bernstein and Sondheim decided to move the story up to the '50s and into New York, they created a playfulness and sass that makes the eventual deaths and betrayals and hurts all the more painful. The love between Maria and Tony is so sweet and fresh, and the fun all the characters seem to be having (except of course when they're fighting or dying) so infectious, it's hard to understand how hatred can make the whole thing come crashing down. Which was apparently the point, and one made pretty strongly here, between the flashing skirts and one-liners.

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