Like film, theater is a collaborative effort; the more elements there are to be integrated, the more difficult it is. To the basic necessities of dramatic structure, plot, characterization, and conflict, the musical adds song and dance. When it fails to come together properly -- all too often in most productions -- the music and choreography act as distractions or interruptions to a (usually) simplis-tic plot. We quickly become bored, restless, and all too aware of how uncomfortable the theater seats are. We start mumbling rude rejoinders to the hapless folks onstage, making unprintable suggestions for how they can best proceed.
But when it's working, the emotional power of music and dance lifts the drama, sends it soaring, and gives the audience a transcendent theatrical experience. In West Side Story the elements coalesce in a synergistic, the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. Although each aspect is extraordinary, none could succeed as drama without the others: Laurents' brilliant adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, in which the feuding Montagues and Capulets are reborn as rival white and Puerto Rican gangs; Bernstein's operatic music; Sondheim's lyrics; and Robbins' choreography.
The set by Campbell Baird and lighting by Natasha Katz create a timeless New York City backdrop that is pure Edward Hopper: a blue wash of sky behind rooftops, fire escapes, and wooden water tanks. It's a top-heavy world that almost seems to settle onto the shoulders of the young gang members who are hanging out, waiting to encounter one another. Robbins' movement, in which dancers in V-formations extend their arms as though in flight, adds whimsy and visual lyricism to Bernstein's frenetic, fast-paced music.
If there's a weakness to this production at all, it's the lack of tension in the beginning. In "The Prologue" and "The Jet Song," gang members dance with an exuberance and a playfulness that gives little hint of the tragic events to come. On opening night these numbers seemed safe and overly crafted. But as the show began to build and make its dramatic case, this appeared to have been a deliberate choice.
As Riff, the leader of the Jets, Jamie Gustis is boyish, sweet, and -- again -- playful. He's involved in an elaborate game whose rules he understands. So when he coaches Action (Charlie Brumbly) on how to be "Cool," there's not the slightest trace of irony or bitterness.
Scott Carollo is Tony -- Riff's "womb to tomb" best friend -- and his voice (a few low notes in "Something's Coming" excepted, when his vibrato seemed seismic) is the silky soundprint of Larry Kert's, the Broadway original. (For those of us who cut our theatrical teeth on the cast album of West Side Story, this lends a nostalgic dimension.) But Carollo is also an actor, and under Johnson's guidance he has managed to create a Tony all his own: a gawky, mischievous teen-ager who sidesteps sentiment, woos with humor, and seems to love with wholehearted abandon. His yearning for something other than the gang creates dramatic atmosphere but little tension, seemingly by design.
Johnson has resisted the impulse to update -- except, perhaps, for the details of the American Dream. (Did it really include color television and king-size beds in 1957?) It's a relatively benign world wherein gangs fight for turf with fists instead of semiautomatic weapons. These are children at play until the Rumble, when death changes the rules and raises the stakes. The show is shaped to create a genuine sense of before and after so that the tension increases exponentially with each tragic event.
The Sharks (or the gang of color, if you will; ostracized blacks join Puerto Ricans) are led by Bernardo, ably played by Vincent Zamora. We meet his sister, Maria (Marcy Harriell), and girlfriend, Anita (Natascia A. Diaz), at the bridal shop where they work. Harriell makes a vulnerable yet spirited Maria. Newly arrived in New York, she longs to escape the strict supervision of her brother and discover the possibilities of life in America. Harriell's huge, haunting eyes and diminutive stature make her instantly appealing.
But it's not until "The Dance at the Gym" that dramatic sparks begin to rise and fly. The staging crowds the gangs together in too small a space, and the classic battle between warring factions can finally take hold.
West Side Story is a show that relies on contrasts to create its effects: love is cheek-by-jowl with hate, beauty with ugliness, dissonance with harmony, and so forth. Which means that everything is heightened. The dance at the gym is a study in contrasts. Scenically, it's gorgeous: a rainbow of streamers falls from the ceiling, and dancers rush on to some of the most exuberant music ever composed for the stage. The nerdy chaperon, Glad Hand (Jonathan Miller), supplies a rare bit of humor in trying to get the gangs to mix and mingle, and the world stops as Tony and Maria spot each other.
That they make believable lovers is crucial to the success of this West Side Story. Without the sweet romanticism of "Tonight," there is no brittle irony to "America," which follows almost immediately. Without the finger-snapping percussiveness of "Cool," the tenderness of "One Hand, One Heart" would fall flat. And without the carefully delineated contrasts of the principal characters, there would be little excitement to the "Tonight" ensemble.
But it is Natascia A. Diaz as Anita who repeatedly cranks up the heat onstage and supplies much of the fierce sensuality that gives the show its lifeblood. Diaz sings, dances, and acts with apparently equal ease. She portrays Anita as wise, generous, and worldly without making her brazen or cynical. Along with Natasha Harper as Rosalia and the other Shark girls (Michelle Dejean, Greta Martin, Eileen Kaden, and Christiane Farr), she nearly stops the show with "America."
As I marveled at the sheer brilliance of the show's architecture and the superb quality of the performers to whom it has been entrusted, it seemed almost a side issue how athletic it is. Each number demands everything from the dancers. Then, almost before you know it, there they are, giving their utmost once again. It's like an Olympic event. Suffice it to say this company earns a gold medal.
West Side Story runs through Jan. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre in S.F.; call 776-1999.