(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
West Side Story Soars
Fifty-five years later and still a masterpiece
by Stuart Munro
There are certain shows that make me wish I could go back in time and experience them, for the first time, with everybody else in the room. West Side Story is one of those shows. Around the time I was learning how to pirouette, I was also learning how West Side Story had revolutionized theatre and changed the musical forever. I, of course, had grown up surrounded by the effects of those changes (the closest my generation ever got to something groundbreaking was the rock opera, but Jesus Christ Superstar was already ten years old by the time I showed up) and we all now take for granted the fact that musical performers must be actors, singers and dancers. But I’ve always imagined sitting in New York’s Winter Garden Theatre fifty-five years ago, and seeing what must have been something truly exciting and electrifying, and wondering what it felt like.
Last night, I got my wish.
The national tour of West Side Story, currently playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts courtesy of DanCap Productions, has every bit of the energy and passion that I imagine that original production had. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score feels fresh and original, Arthur Laurents’s book doesn’t sound the least bit dated, and Jerome Robbins’s stunning choreography is every bit as powerful and evocative as I’d hoped it would be.
Simply put, West Side Story is a contemporary re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Set in the late 1950s in New York’s Upper West Side, the family rivalry has been transformed into a gang war between the anglo, native New Yorkers, the Jets, and the immigrant Puerto Ricans, the Sharks. Caught in the middle are Tony and Maria, two kids from opposite sides who fall in love. The story may not exactly be original, but the show’s strength comes from how it’s told.
Central to West Side Story’s success is Jerome Robbins’s choreography, recreated here by Joey McKneely. Not simply serving as production numbers, the dances help to move the plot along at a fierce pace, probably better than the songs do, and it’s a wonder to me why any production would opt out of using Robbins’s original staging when given the option. (In fact, I’ve seen two other productions that did just that, and it never worked.) But brilliant choreography requires an equally brilliant ensemble to pull it off, and this touring company not only handles the choreography, they excel at it. Every step, every line was perfectly in place, and the cast of nearly thirty fill the modestly sized stage without ever making us worry there’s about to be a collision, so honed is their skill. But precision will only take you so far, and these dancing actors imbue each movement with character and style, grace and masculinity, making the material work in a way the National Ballet failed to do two seasons ago. It is this incredible blend of dance, story and song that made West Side Story groundbreaking, and performances like these help to keep it fresh today.
Arthur Laurents’s staging, recreated for the tour by David Saint, is fast paced and energetic, but never frantic.
The few times I’ve seen West Side Story on stage before, I’ve never been sold that it really worked as a stage play. Like most folks my age I grew up with the movie and was convinced that the few minor changes made for it—specifically the decision to switch “Officer Krupke” with “Cool” and adding the boys into “America”—were the difference between mediocre and genius. I see now that I was wrong. Arthur Laurents’s staging, recreated for the tour by David Saint, is fast paced and energetic, but never frantic. As soon as the curtain comes up, this production grabs you and doesn’t let go until it comes back down for the end of Act I. For the first time, having “Cool” in the first act made sense to me, and the dream ballet of “Somewhere” didn’t feel the least bit corny. James Youmans’s set design is simple and unobtrusive, giving the performers the space they need, but always letting us know just where we are. This tour, based on the 2009 Broadway revival, makes use of the Spanish translations by In The Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sometimes this works, especially in scenes involving members of both gangs: it heightens the language and social barriers between the two. It is less convincing when there are only native Spanish speakers on stage and Anita (who is trying to become a real American girl) has to gently chide the other speakers to use English, primarily for our benefit.
Michelle Aravena as Anita is a real firecracker, and her execution of the “America” choreography alone deserved a standing ovation.
If I had to pick out a weak link, I might be forced to choose Ross Lekites as Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria, but I hesitate to do so. If I felt their performances didn’t stand out, it’s only because a clear effort has been made to make this West Side Story a true ensemble piece. Both actors possess fine voices (which are sadly overshadowed by the orchestra and an imprecise sound balance on occasion), and were able to make me believe in the truth of their hurried love. Michelle Aravena as Anita is a real firecracker, and her execution of the “America” choreography alone deserved a standing ovation. She is just as comfortable with her dialogue, and her ferocity at the end of Act II sent chills down my spine. Drew Foster as Riff was easily able to convince me he was a rough and ready gang leader, even if he stood almost a head shorter than everyone around him. The performances were strong all around, and this was one of the few times I’ve been able to sit and simply let a story wash over me without wishing something, or someone, had been better.
I’m a bit of a sucker. My eyes will water for almost anything. But I can’t remember the last time I spent an entire first act beaming from ear to ear, only to be moved to tears at the end of both acts, knowing full well what was coming. This West Side Story is lively, energetic, engaging and relevant. Every time I start watching the movie, I say to myself “I forgot how brilliant this is!” I’ve always wanted to be able to say that about a live production, and now I finally can.