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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

West Side Story: A Gritty and Pretty Great Sight


West Side Story, based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, Book by Arthur Laurents Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Featuring Chilina Kennedy, Paul Nolan, Stephen Russell

The story: On New York City’s west side, Tony and Maria meet at a dance, and it is love at first sight. But Tony is a former Jet, and Maria’s brother is leader of the Sharks, and the teen gangs’ bitter rivalry is a wedge between the two lovers. They nevertheless dream of being together, but when the Jets square off against the Sharks for final control of their turf, their battle turns fatal, and has a heartbreaking consequence.

West Side Story may be one of the greatest musicals of all time. It was made into a film in 1961 with Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, and it is regularly revived on Broadway.

Now, forget all that, because the Stratford production of West Side Story is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and is almost the antithesis to the Hollywood movie.

First of all, the Festival’s huge thrust stage has been extended to its maximum limit, putting the audience thrillingly close to the action: the cityscape set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, overhangs part of the audience, and one design element swoops in from overhead with “illuminating” results.

Next, the original Jerome Robbins choreography – copyrighted as part of the show – was specially adapted to the thrust stage, and the choreographers now throw in a few modern martial-art moves that Mr. Robbins may have wished he’d invented. The dancers also climb, hang, perch and flip off of parts of the set in near acrobatic fashion (try not to let your jaws hit the floor – it distracts the actors).

The costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein, are terrific. It is a shame that the show’s house program has only rehearsal photos, because those Jets and Sharks jackets are great (maybe they’ll sell reproductions in the Theatre Store?), and the girls dresses are sizzling, especially in the “Dance at the Gym”, “America” and “Cool” numbers.

Then there are the individual actors. Jennifer Rias as Anita brings her own brand of heat to the show, both fiery and affectionate. She is especially sassy in the dance numbers and the “Tonight” quintet. Brandon Espinoza and his Jets may try to maintain their “Cool” before the rumble but it’s no good – their dancing is just too hot.

The "adults" of West Side Story are supposed to be out of touch with the teens, but Stephen Russell as Doc strikes the best note – ironically in a non-singing role – as the one adult who at least tries to help; when he rescues Anita from the increasingly violent Jets, Mr. Russell’s baritone, pained roar sends shivers down one’s spine.

As the maturing but still naïve Tony, Paul Nolan exudes all the optimism, courage and romantic nature of the character, and out-does any Romeo with great leaps onto Maria’s balcony. And while he has a wonderfully expressive singing voice, and is well-paired musically with her, he himself is bested by his leading lady.

Chilina Kennedy is stunning as Maria. Sparkling, animated and petite, she may look like a demure girl in love, but Ms. Kennedy’s Maria is anything but shy and retiring. She is Latina to the core: eyes snapping, she smokes a cigarette, slaps Anita full in the face, and turns the hum-able but odd “I Feel Pretty” number into one of bold dissembling – sharing her secret with us but hiding it from her friends. Ms. Kennedy just sells every moment, every song, every nuance, and nearly steals the show.

Director Gary Griffin certainly upped show’s grittiness: there is no doubt what would have happened to Anita if Doc had not appeared, there is no doubt that the lovers share a night of premarital sex, and there is no doubt about the brutal natures of the law-keepers in this world. But in the end Mr. Griffin punctuates the show tenderly: it is Anybodys, the tom-boy Jet, gently placing her hard-won gang jacket over the shoulders of the grief-stricken Maria, who demonstrates true compassion and understanding.

When it was first unleashed on audiences West Side Story changed forever how musicals were performed. Go see this production and feel that transformation for yourself – splurge on the best seats or not, just go - and bring tissues. West Side Story continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 31

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