west side story srt

West Side Story. Courtesy of Summer Repertory Theatre

By ROBERT DIGITALE

Some things you can count on: the surprise of love, the troubles of life and that Summer Repertory Theatre will present with polish some classic American dramas and musicals focusing on what it means to be human.

With its opening of “West Side Story,” Santa Rosa Junior College on Friday kicked off its 46th season of bringing in talented college students from around the nation for a whirlwind summer that includes 80 performances in eight weeks. “West Side Story” runs through June 29 and is the first of five productions that will play through Aug. 5.

The theater program has been going on for so long that locals easily can take for granted what a treat we have to see these young people give it their all in acting, singing and dance. The talent level is once more top-notch, and part of the fun again this year will be to see the same actors switch between the more-intimate dramas and the elaborate musicals.

“West Side Story” was one of the first SRT shows I ever saw back in the early 1980s. Then, as now, it remains a troubling look at how hate and division can lead to tragedy.

On Friday it was pure pleasure to watch the lead actors, Stavros Koumbaros as Tony and Victoria Byrd as Maria, find themselves falling in love with one another. But as lovers linked to different street gangs, their dream of a life together is set on a collision course with racism, anger and pride.

Six decades after its premiere, the play reminds us of our human failings and of a hope that “we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving.”

The show includes some American classics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, including “Tonight” and “Somewhere.” At Friday’s opening, both the cast and the orchestra performed the musical numbers with beauty and gusto.

The set by scenic designer Brian Redfern at first seems minimal, but its moveable columns, stairways and chain link fences effectively transformed the stage from scene to scene, and the backdrops offered artful takes on New York City walk-up apartments and starry night skies.

This year SRT is offering an extra treat in the pairing of “Clybourne Park,” the 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the 1959 drama it plays off of, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The directors notes of the two plays suggest that viewers will be able to see a half century later what has changed and what remains the same when it comes to matters of race and class in America.

Also to be presented are the musicals “Chicago” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The musicals take place in Burbank Auditorium, while “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Clybourne Park” will be performed in Newman Auditorium.

This year’s cast of 33 actors includes multiple students from the Boston Conservatory, University of Cincinnati / College-Conservatory of Music, Ohio University, Syracuse University and the University of Oklahoma. Also represented are UCLA, UC Irvine and Mills College. The cast includes four local performers.

For showtimes, tickets and more information, click here.