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'West Side Story' Rumbles Onto Mount Tam

Jets_and_Sharks_Rumbling

Photo by Dorothy O'Donnell.

Rival New York gangs have taken over the top of Mount Tamalpais. This month, you can watch the Jets and Sharks rumble on the Cushing Amphitheatre’s stage during the Mountain Play’s production of West Side Story, the classic musical based on Romeo and Juliet. Now in its 103rd season, Mountain Play is a beloved summer tradition that attracts fans from all over the Bay Area.

Set in the mid-fifties on New York’s Upper West Side—then an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood—the play revolves around young lovers Tony and Maria. Tony is a former member of the Jets, a white gang, and best friends with Riff, the gang’s leader. Maria is from Puerto Rico. Her brother, Bernardo, heads the Puerto Rican Sharks. The couple struggles to stay together as their family and friends focus on their differences and try to rip them apart. With themes of prejudice and inequality, West Side Story feels as relevant today as when director Jerome Robbins brought it to Broadway in 1957.

As usual, this year’s Mountain Play has a strong cast. During a dress rehearsal preview, the 45 actors and dancers delivered a seamless performance under the guidance of director Jay Manley. The 18-piece orchestra conducted by David Moschler was equally impressive.

West Side Story is a super challenging play to put on,” said Sara Pearson, executive director of the Mountain Play. “We waited until we were really ready to do it justice, and we’re so pleased with what we’ve accomplished. This is also the nicest group of people I’ve ever worked with—everyone is having a blast and they’re all very proud of themselves.”

Maria_and_Anita_dressshop

Photo by Dorothy O'Donnell.

They have good reason to be. Jerry Lee is a charismatic Tony and Mindy Lym is perfect as sweet, passionate Maria. Their beautiful voices elevate the emotion of every scene they’re in, and are especially powerful when blended together. Zachary Isen brings the right dose of swagger to the role of Riff and David Crane is a forceful Bernardo. Erica Lamkin is also excellent as brash Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend.

Choreographer Nicole Helfer’s dance routines are mesmerizing and a crucial part of the play.  Each one captures the characters’ moods, from the exuberance of the rival gang couples showing off for each other during “The Dance at the Gym” to the Jets’ simmering anger in the taut, finger-snapping moves of “Cool.” Fight choreographer Zoe Swenson-Graham’s dramatic, slow motion rumble was also hypnotizing.   

“What Nicole does with this very difficult choreography is just miraculous,” said Pearson. “There’s a huge range of experience among the dancers—only four or five are professionals. And I never get tired of seeing the absolute tightness of Zoe’s fight moves.”

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Photo by Dorothy O'Donnell.

Watching the play unfold in a stunning natural setting is also part of the fun. Perched on a pine-rimmed hillside, the theatre affords views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco shimmering in the distance. Grab some friends, pack a picnic—or purchase food from the café—and spend the day on Mount Tam. Arrive early to enjoy pre-show entertainment, including live music, puppet shows and crafts. (The bench-style seating is built out of rock, so you may want to bring a small, cushioned stadium chair or rent one on site.)

Sarah Suloff is among those who considers a trip to the Mountain Play a rite of summer. She started going to the event with her family as a kid and now continues the tradition with her children. “I’ve been coming to the Mountain Play off and on for 30 years,” she said.  “It’s a fun way to spend the day and see a great show.”

Limited parking is available near the Cushing Amphitheatre and spaces fill quickly. For many people, taking the free shuttle to and from the show is part of the Mountain Play experience. Buses depart every half hour between 10 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. from two Mill Valley locations: Tamalpais High School and the Manzanita Commuter Parking Lot. Hiking to the theatre is another option (go to mountainplay.org for routes and more information).

West Side Story is playing on Sundays through June 19, as well as Saturday, June 11. All shows begin at 2 p.m. General admission adult tickets are $40; discounts are offered for seniors, students and children. You can purchase tickets through the website.