West Side Story Company | Photo: Carol Rosegg
West Side Story
February 11 – 16, 2014
Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
When asked to describe the various roles in the classic musical, West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim (the show’s lyricist) was blunt. “There are no characters in ‘West Side,’ nor can there be.” They are and must be, he said, “one-dimensional characters for a melodrama.”
Not exactly the kind of publicity line you want on your poster.
There are lots of other critical things one can say about the famed 1957 musical that takes star-crossed lover inspiration from Romeo and Juliet and transplants the story to mid 50’s Manhattan in the midst of the Latino vs Anglo gang violence. There’s the ridiculously speedy manner in which the show’s leads, Tony and Maria, meet, fall in love and plan to marry all one night. There’s the ill-timed comical “Gee, Officer Krupke” number that sees boys from the American gang, the Jets, joking around about a nuisance cop just hours after their leader is tragically murdered. Then of course there is the fact that all the so-called tough street-gang boys spend most of the musical singing and dancing around in tight pants.
But here’s the thing – despite all these ridiculous elements – it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein’s aggressively emotional music, Sondheim’s clever lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ macho and sexy choreography is just simply a trifecta you can’t argue with. But in the version that opened in Calgary and is presently touring across Canada, some arguing with the original production is going on. Directed by David Saint, this West Side Story is based on the Tony Award winning 2009 Broadway revival by the show’s original librettist, Arthur Laurents. The story is the same, as are the dancing and music, but in this new version there is a language twist that both intrigues and heavily undermines the show’s success.
What Laurents brings to this production is Spanish. Makes sense, right? Half the characters in West Side Story are from Puerto Rico and it’s reasonable to think that they would speak Spanish to each other. It’s an astute addition that would have been very welcome but for its overkill. The audience had no problem following along when the Spanish was kept to incidental banter between Maria, her Sharks gang-leader brother Bernardo and his girlfriend, Anita. Hearing these characters speak in their native tongue adds a gritty reality to the show and gives this 50 plus year old play a welcome kick into modernity. But when the Spanish flowed heavily over into the music, things suffered.
The “America” number where Anita expresses her love of Manhattan and berates a friend for her Puerto Rico nostalgia, fails to be funny because fifty per cent of the song is sung in Spanish which flies over the heads of the audience. Similar issues plague the sweetly charming “I Feel Pretty” number that has Maria in the rapture of love while her girlfriends tease her for it. Adding to this problem is the heavy-handed directorial decision to have all the Puerto Rican women in the cast (except Maria) sing in such heavy accents that even when it is English they are singing it’s often impossible to discern what’s being said. For those who know and love the musical, they could follow along with the sound track that’s been burnt into their brain. However for those that were new to the show or less familiar, I heard a lot of “what were they saying/singing about?” at intermission. Shame, that.
There were triumphs in the production as well. The dance at the gym where the Sharks and Jets uneasily inhabit the same space and set in motion the turf rumble that results in tragedy for both sides is wonderfully slick in its shadowy lighting, stark set design and exciting choreography. The actual rumble is a feat of spectacular direction and violent choreography that still manages to choke us up after all this time.
The cast certainly had its knockouts as well. Michelle Alves as Anita embraced the strong and sexy character and gave her musical numbers more than an extra dose of sassy oomph. Alves also deftly handled the disturbing rape scene at the hands of the Jets with actorly confidence, showing her range. Fluidly masculine in the performance, Michael Spencer Smith as Bernardo had swagger that oozed the testosterone of angry youth. When it came to sweetness of voice and character, no one could top MaryJoanna Grisso as Maria. Not only does Grisso have an angelic voice equally blessed with strength that charmed from the first note, she also managed to bring a realness to Maria, making her far more human than the script usually allows.
The Anglo’s held up their end of the cast well enough, albeit without stand out performances. Jarrad Biron Green as Tony opened strongly with “Something’s Coming”, a number that sets him up as wanting to leave gang life. But the strength and charisma he showed early faded to a somewhat limp performance despite his lovely vocal range. Benjamin Dallas Redding as Riff, the tough leader of the Jets, seemed ill-cast due to his inability to fully embody either toughness or leadership. This combined with dance skills and a signing voice inferior to his other gang members made him a confusing choice for the role.
Not a ticket was left for sale the night I saw West Side Story proving that over half a century later, there is still a healthy appetite for this tale of tragic love amongst urban gang warfare. The version we were served up certainly delivered on the emotional aspects of the story. But in making it grittier and more linguistically real – it felt like all the fun was taken out of the performance. I have never been to a Broadway Across Canada show in Calgary where audiences didn’t jump to their feet and applaud at the end of a performance. For this West Side Story, they sat and clapped. Perhaps it was the language and accent issue. Perhaps some things are better left in memory. Or perhaps we just need a little bit of honest laughter with our violence these days to get us out of our seats.
For West Side Story fans – It’s all there, the music, the dance numbers, the energy. Given that you already know all the lyrics, the heavy accents and Spanish won’t be an impediment. In fact, you may welcome it as a sensible and interesting addition. Then again you may feel the new language twist gets in the way of listening to the lyrics you fell in love with in the first place. MAYBE SEE IT
For West Side Story newbies – It’s not that you won’t understand the stories or follow the gist of the partial Spanish/heavily accented songs. It’s just such a shame that you won’t get to enjoy this musical to its fullest in this production. Sondheim’s lyrics are a large part of the reason audiences love this show and unfortunately, unless you speak Spanish, you’ll miss some of the best of them. MAYBE SEE IT
For theatre junkies – The gym and rumble scenes alone are worth seeing this production. Both are a perfect confluence of staging, set design and choreography evoking the arrogance and sexual energy of youth and the disturbing nature of racism. SEE IT