Wednesday, June 19, 2013

West Side Story

I was a gangly four-year-old when my parents enrolled me in ballet lessons in southern California. Preparing for a recital at a local venue near my home in South Pasadena, my young classmates and I practiced our very best first, second and third positions as we scurried back and forth around our instructor in time to long forgotten music.

I don’t have much memory of my early childhood. But I do remember being up on what seemed like a grand stage with the instructor and my fellow classmates on the evening of the performance. Our teacher was dressed in a "mother hen" costume made of yellow feathers. She wore a bonnet with a fabric beak tied above and below her chin. All we little girls were dressed in "eggshell" costumes, our legs sticking out the bottoms of poufy fabric spheres. We wore broad, curved white hats on our heads made to look like the tops of the shells.

I don’t recall how many minutes our performance lasted or if the audience liked it. I don’t recall what happened immediately after the recital or if I made any mistakes. Somehow I returned to civilian clothes and joined my parents and my younger brother in the audience, where a stage production of the musical West Side Story was about to begin. This could not have been the official Broadway musical, because that show played at the Los Angeles Philharmonic auditorium in July of 1959. Not only would tickets to a musical at that classic venue have been too expensive for my parents’ modest budget, but I would have been not yet three years old, probably a little young to be pirouetting and pliĆ©ing in an eggshell costume on such a large stage.

I don’t recall much about that evening’s production of West Side Story. My parents encouraged my brother and me to "go right to sleep" as I’m certain they considered the content of this avant-garde production far too mature for our tender ages. And I probably did fall fast asleep, but not before observing, and being bowled over by, the incredibly deep, dramatic colors of the set design in the opening scene: wild magenta, purple, orange and pink; a row of teenage boys in silhouette lined up on one side of the stage and a row of girls on the other (or so it seemed from my diminutive vantage point).

The drama of those shadowy figures silhouetted against such rich, saturated colors made a big impression on my four-year-old brain. Indeed, it is all I remember about my first and only look at the musical West Side Story. Until Saturday night.

Now firmly planted on the opposite coast, I was thrilled when my local philharmonic, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, put West Side Story on their playbill for the 2012-2013 season. I made sure to get tickets to what would be my final trip to the Joseph P. Meyerhoff Symphony hall before the orchestra’s 2013 summer break.
With sleeves hanging
down, my maxi is a
cool summer shift

I chose my outfit carefully, selecting a floor-length summer maxi in palest beige which my girlfriend, Jan, picked up on a trip to Morocco many
years ago and gave to me when she realized she never wore it anymore. While subtle in color, the folds of the long gown create lots of drama. Extra fabric with an armhole on each side allows the wearer to bring the material up and, sliding an arm through, form deeply draping sleeves from what moments before had been a sleeveless frock.

Against these yards of otherwise unadorned oatmeal cloth, I strung my most elaborate "statement" necklace, a jumble of branch coral in fiery orange alternating with fat blister pearls and shimmering crystals which was handmade by jewelry designer Lisa Davin for last summer’s biggest Baltimore street festival, Artscape.

It was warm in the Meyerhoff auditorium, and the
performance by the BSO was hot, hot, hot!

Pulling on sky-high platform T-strap heels by Aldo, I added earrings and a bracelet of vibrant orange shells by Mixit from JCPenney, a sparkly cocktail ring I found in Las Vegas two years ago and a vintage ecru leather envelope that I bought when I still lived in California in the 1970s.

The original stage production of West Side Story ran for 732 Broadway performances from 1957 to 1958 before going on national tour in 1959. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the story of forbidden love between teenage members of two rival New York City gangs was loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Members of the Puerto Rican Sharks, taunted by the Polish-American Jets, provide a gloomy, inner-city theme against which sophisticated music and extended dance scenes made this dark tale of social rivalry a smash hit; downright provocative for its time.

While Natalie Wood was lovely as she lip-synched her songs, the dancing ability and athleticism of the young cast could not be denied. There were some other names I recognized: Rita Moreno, just starting her career, played the Puerto Rican gang leader’s girlfriend. John Astin of Addams Family fame played "Glad Hand", an inept chaperone at a dance in one of the first scenes. In all, my evening with the characters in West Side Story was a thrilling, if a bit corny, look at what was relevant to movie goers in 1960 America. The score, expertly executed Saturday night by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the capable baton of Maestra Marin Alsop, was fabulous. And I finally got to see what those brilliant pinks, oranges and purples, which made such a lasting impression on me when I was four, were all about.

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