Peggy Taphorn

West Side Story: the memory lingers on

Broadway Rose's vibrant production captures the up-to-date thrills and issues of a 60-year-old American musical classic

In 1957 theater critic Walter Kerr wrote this famous opening line: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.”

West Side Story lost out in awards that year to the equally iconic piece of American pie known as The Music Man, but West Side Story was a nutshell of figures, issues, and culture that would come to dominate the stage and set the bar for what audiences would expect in performances for the next few decades.

Broadway Rose is taking on Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins this summer, first with its production of West Side Story, running through July 24, then with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Aug. 2-24. Robbins choreographed and directed West Side Story, which was Sondheim’s Broadway breakthrough show, as lyricist; Leonard Bernstein composed the score. Forum was the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.

Austin Arizpe and Kayla Dixon in Broadway Rose's "West Side Story." Photo: Liz Wade

Austin Arizpe and Kayla Dixon in Broadway Rose’s “West Side Story.” Photo: Liz Wade

Director Peggy Taphorn and company have brought this latest West Side Story to life with sparkling energy and freshness, immersing the audience once again in the thrills and charms of a genuine classic. Far from being an antique, this landmark musical is a show whose images and issues are with us every day, and Broadway Rose’s production plays them out with thrilling intensity.

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West Side Story is now an American legend that touches almost all of us. It carries its own particular American story, and we have stories about it: every time we see the show again, we bring the stories with us into the theater seats.

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America, America: ‘Carousel’ and ‘Best Little Whorehouse’

A pair of summer musical entertainments at Clackamas Rep and Broadway Rose reflect today's headlines

“Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress,” Charles M. Blow wrote in a Monday op-ed piece in the New York Times bemoaning the simultaneous shenanigans and torpor of the current do-nothing Congress. “Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.”

As it happens, I read Blow’s depressingly rational screed the morning after catching that grand old flimflam of a musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Broadway Rose, and I couldn’t help thinking, What else is new?

The women's chorus in "Best Little Whorehouse." Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The women’s chorus in “Best Little Whorehouse.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Whorehouse first opened on Broadway in 1978, and is based loosely on real events a few years earlier when a crusading television reporter started a campaign that finally shut the doors of the Chicken Ranch, a century-old institution of widely if reluctantly tolerated repute outside the rural town of LaGrange, Texas. The resulting political fallout, at least in the fictionalized version onstage, is less a matter of actuality than of appearances, which in the topsy-turvy world of politics have a way of becoming reality. Life has been rolling along pretty much as humanly usual, with most of the human appetites being accommodated in some sort of agreed-upon manner closely associated to a wink and a nod and a turning of official heads in the opposite direction. But times are changing. Raise enough of a stink and eventually someone’ll be forced to do something about it, not so much to stop the stink as to stop the noise and keep the incumbents safely in office.

Whorehouse isn’t the best musical to come roaring down the two-lane blacktop of rural Americana, but it knows what it wants to do and it does it well, and as I hadn’t seen it in a number of years I was happy to make its acquaintance again, especially in this agreeable production directed (as was Broadway Rose’s pert and winning revival of The Music Man earlier in the summer) by the stage-smart Peggy Taphorn. Like most musical comedies it’s really mostly about its surfaces, but it does make a difference what’s underneath, and Whorehouse survives partly because its book latches onto some enduring American themes: a strong libertarian bent, an equally strong moralistic fervor, a thirst for fame and power and the various pleasures of the flesh, and the destruction derby that occurs when the soft tissue of human desire meets the driving metal of religious extremism and unshackled careerism. The resulting ruckus brings to mind such political and religious fast-shuffle hall of famers as Wilbur Mills and Lyndon Johnson and Aimee Semple McPherson, and the shenanigans of such latter-day politician/entertainer/perpetrator/scolds as Michele Bachmann, Elliott Spitzer, Sarah Palin, Anthony Weiner, Glenn Beck, and that comeback champ Newt Gingrich. Ooh, they love to do the little sidestep: It’s like watching Molière performed on a pedal steel guitar.

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