Hard Times bettered with a musical

‘West Bank Story’ reveals the neighborhood’s history with a little song, a little dance

Don M. Burrows

The West Bank’s Mixed Blood Theatre will transform its stage this weekend into the familiar streetscape of its own neighborhood for Bedlam Theatre’s “West Bank Story.”

The musical was inspired, in part, by a public history course at the University last semester that explored the history of the West Bank and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Written by John Bueche, the musical takes us on a flashback tour from the present to the 1970s and 1890s.

“The process of research was really about finding our place in the neighborhood in a broader sense,” Bueche said of Bedlam, which has made the West Bank home for 10 years.

Bueche said his team – including director Maren Ward and musical director Marya Hart – always conceived of “West Bank Story” as a musical.

Hart, who has worked the West Bank music scene for years, mixed styles to reflect the neighborhood’s diversity: a dance number that takes place in the 1890s, for example, has Scandinavian overtones and includes the accordion.

Hart said she wanted to express the community’s experience in song. While there are some solos, the cast sings mostly in chorus to reflect the communal vision the producers wished to convey.

Playing off the similarly titled 1950s Broadway musical, Bueche said this “Story” is likewise about boundaries. That’s why the play begins with a series of remarks from various people about whom they fear in the neighborhood.

“A lot of people feel safe in their little niche, but they don’t leave their little niche,” Bueche explained. “There are these gaps and gulfs in between, and that’s been the adventure of it – crossing those gaps and gulfs.”

The clearest example of those boundaries has manifested amid the influx of Somali residents on the West Bank, something treated overtly in the play.

The musical centers on Harshwind, the punk daughter of hippie parents who meet on the West Bank during one of the play’s 1970s sequences.

Harshwind is played by Savannah Reich, a senior theater student at the University who lives near the neighborhood. Like her character, Reich didn’t know the history of the area, making its revelation through song an eye-opening experience for her as well.

“It’s been mirroring the way the play goes,” she said.

In the play Harshwind meets a young Somali woman who shares her experience of the neighborhood, something that also happened offstage with the Somali actors.

“It’s really interesting to talk to them and see what their experience in the neighborhood has been,” Reich said. “Doing the play, I’ve been able to see how we all connect.”