J. Shane Mercer, Published February 22 2009
‘Midwest Side Story’ a little more subdued
Then again, if the gangs in “West Side Story” didn’t sing or dance, it wouldn’t be much of a musical, now would it?
North Dakota State University’s Little Country Theatre brings this Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein stage and screen classic to Festival Concert Hall Wednesday through March 1.
This contemporary take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” tells the story of Tony and Maria, who fall in love on Manhattan’s West Side only to be torn apart by a gang turf war between the Jets and the Sharks.
Gary Briggle, guest director for the production, says “West Side Story” is “probably the most challenging piece in all of musical theater,” calling it a “Mount Everest.”
But New York is a long way away. What we need is a musical more accessible to our Midwestern sensibilities. What about transferring the setting of “West Side Story” from the gritty streets of New York to the snowy fields of the Plains?
Set in Fargo-Moorhead, “Midwest Side Story” would require just a few changes. For example …
There are certainly some beautiful people in our area, but in a city where the rugged West and unpretentious, understated Minnesota collide, you just don’t say things like “I Feel Pretty.” So this song has to change. “I Feel Pretty” becomes “I Really Don’t Spend that Much Time Thinking About Myself; Hotdish, Anyone?”
In the “Jet Song,” Riff sings, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day.” Now there’s a sentiment that F-M’ers can get with – sameness.
Norwegian farmers just don’t go picking up and moving away to exotic places. They came here all the way from the old country generations ago, and that’s enough.
So this song simply gets adapted to say, “When you live on the Plains, you stay where you’re put; things are just fine here; sink in your roots.”
The ultimate Minn. goodbye
If there’s one thing we can’t do around here (and there aren’t many, my friend) it’s leave quickly. More than 50 percent of time at the average family get-together in our region is spent near the front door with the car warming up.
True to form, at the end of “Midwest Side Story,” the fatally wounded Tony, held in the embrace of the lovely Maria, leaves this world slowly – really, really slowly.
“Well, I’ve been shot so I should probably be dyin’ now,” he says. “Maybe I could linger for a while. Everything’s getting dark – then again I guess that’s what happens this time of year. I’m slipping away, Maria. Lot of rain we’ve had lately, huh? Hey, are those lemon bars? …”
Ummm … no. The scene with Tony yelling “Maria!” simply doesn’t happen. Too loud; too emotional. Midwesterners do not cause a scene … except in groups, like at a Bison game.
Handsome leading man Tony sings “Something’s Coming,” though he doesn’t know what. But whatever it is, it’s exciting. Around here, however, we know change is highly overrated and really almost never happens.
So “Something’s Coming” is changed to “Something’s Coming, But It’s Probably Pretty Much the Same As What’s Already Been Here So Don’t Go Getting All Crazy About It.”
A Jetless West Side
The Jets and the Sharks are fine gangs for New York, but here in the Midwest it’s different. We could have the Combines and the Walleyes. Or what about the Vikings and the Packers?
In that case, the Viking gang could endlessly reminisce about all the years they made it to the turf rumble but without ever coming out top dog. Meanwhile, there’s much unrest in the Packer ranks over rumors that their leader will leave the gang. He eventually goes to the New York version of the musical and joins the Jets.
‘Somewhere … where else?’
In “Somewhere,” the girl sings, “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.” Sure there is – right here. No need to go traipsing off to the big city in search of some dream or whatever. The traffic’s horrible in the Cities anyway.
Since “West Side Story” is about gangs, there’s some fighting. But, here, we don’t really go for those overt expressions of our angry feelings. We’re a subdued people.
So the fight scenes are replaced by riveting portrayals of the gangs quietly grousing about each other and then resigning themselves to simply enduring each other’s presence.
Not turf, tundra
Actually, “Midwest Side Story” wouldn’t have much in the way of turf wars. See, in “West Side Story” the Jets are threatened by the Shark’s intrusion onto their turf. But we F-M’ers have chosen to live in a climate few can endure.
Any rival gangs will eventually be driven out by the cold. And Midwesterners are imminently content to wait for nature to take its course.
Better yet, perhaps instead of fighting another gang, the resident kings of the F-M streets could try to defeat our greatest nemesis, winter itself. Actually, the main reason for this would just be to give the characters an excuse to talk about the weather for two hours solid. Hey, there’s nothing more Midwestern than that.
If you go
- What: “West Side Story”
- When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. March 1
- Where: Festival Concert Hall, 1301 12th Ave. N., North Dakota State University
- Info: $18 adults; $15 seniors and NDSU faculty/staff/alumni; $10 non-NDSU students; $8 for NDSU students. All adult and senior tickets are $10 on opening night. Call (701) 231-7969 for more information.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734