The Old Song and Dance

John Hult

John Hult

Outside of the music, there seem to be two defining characteristics of a musical: action and exaggeration.

Whether the action and exaggeration happens onstage, on the screen or in the bathroom mirror when you think your roommates can’t hear you, these elements are the guiding force of storied singsong showmanship.

The trick, it seems, is to create a world where song and dance is as natural a public activity as falling in line at the grocery store.

It’s a tough job. Acting is tough, anyway, but a musical like State University Theatre’s season opener West Side Story requires a different approach to storytelling.

“Because a lot of the show is underscored [music plays during spoken dialogue], J.D. Ackman [WSS director] told us to think of the whole thing as a dance,” senior theater major J.D. Henrikson said.

Henrikson plays Bernardo-the West Side Story equivalent to Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet. West Side’s Juliet is a young Puerto Rican immigrant named Maria, who falls for a white guy on the mean streets of New York City in the 1950s.

Most high school students are familiar with West Side Story as an add-on to studies about Shakespeare, because the musical and film are Romeo & Juliet update tales.

Many of those same students watched the Puerto Rican Sharks gang feud with the white Jets in class or at home for extra credit in sophomore lit.

So what does the cast do to put their own stamp on a musical as well-known as West Side Story?

Well, don’t watch the movie, for one thing.

“I really encouraged my actors not to watch the movie,” Professor Ackman said. “Especially with younger actors, they’ll really try and recreate what they see a person do on film, when in fact, it’s an entirely different situation. If they watch the movie, they may try to act only with their face. And here you’ve got to act with your whole body.”

There is more to it, of course. As his winded actors wound down in Doner’s powder-blue peach fuzz fold-outs after Sunday’s dress rehearsal, Ackman again reminded them about “dancing their moves.” For a musical, he said, this is essential.

“You’re movement can’t be realistic, your line delivery can’t be absolutely realistic, everything that you do has to be almost expressionist in its scope, size, power,” he said later that evening as his actors drove home for the night. “I think by and large, we’re being very successful with it.”

Exaggerating movements and avoiding the movie were just a few pieces of the West Side Story puzzle for the student thespians.

The set includes steel fire escapes, painted-on bricks and two stage-framing 23-foot walls to create the NYC streets on which the Jet/Shark squabbles take place. But there was another thing: the Sharks are Puerto Rican.

This could’ve presented a problem on a campus as overwhelmingly Caucasian as SDSU. The Sharks have purple and red outfits, and the gang members use Puerto Rican accents with varying degrees of conviction, but the issue was a small one, Ackman said.

“If an accent is absolutely realistic, you can’t understand it,” Ackman said. “If your acting is good enough, the audience, within this world of the play will buy that you’re a Puerto Rican.”

Ackman said a few cast members darkened their hair, but most don’t even wear make-up to play the Sharks. Henrikson does, but he has his own reasons.

“Well, I wear a little make-up, but that’s mostly because I’m pasty,” he said with a laugh.

Henrikson, a tall, goateed guy who buckled swash as Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet in the spring of 2002, appreciated the opportunity West Side Story’s rumble scene provided to show off his stage fighting chops.

According to Henrikson, he’s happy to be consistently cast as the tough.

“It’s one of the best parts about theater-musical theater, anyway,” Henrikson said. “The more physical you can be on stage the better. It’s a really choreographed dance fight, so that make it even more fun.”

Steph Meyer, who plays Maria, appreciates the show on a more musical level. It’s only natural. She’s a vocal-focused music education major who talks technical music jargon in adoring tones to iterate her admiration for West Side Story’s jumpy, jarring song craft.

Sensing the confusion her descriptions were bringing, she breaks out in song in the Admin hallway. She bounces through a few bars of “Maria” to demonstrate how play’s use of extreme intervals unifies the music from song to song and theme to theme. It sounds great.

“You don’t hear that in Beethoven or Bach,” Meyer said. “You don’t hear that until the 20th Century stuff.”

The music was coming along during the dress rehersal Sunday. “Gee, Officer Krupke” is funny as hell. “Someday” was a little shakey-looking, but its tones lilted lovely through the auditorium.

With any luck, the songs will find a full house of ears when West Side Story opens Wednesday night. The show runs through Saturday, with a 2 p.m. matinee that day.