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Theatre review: Don’t miss your chance to see West Side Story

By Liz Nicholls,
Edmonton Journal

West Side Story
Broadway Across Canada touring production
Directed by: David Saint
Starring: Jarrad Biron Green, MaryJoanna Grisso, Michelle Alves, Michael Spencer Smith, Benjiman Dallas Redding
Where: Jubilee Auditorium

EDMONTON - “Something’s coming,” sings a boy named Tony at the start of the something that knocked the socks off the musical theatre half a century ago. “It may come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose …”

Tony, poor lad, thinks he’s talking about a life-changer, like maybe falling in love at first sight. As you’ll see when you catch the rockin’ touring revival of West Side Story that has cannonballed onto the Jube stage, Tony is actually talking about an impossibly demanding musical where the lustrous complexities of Leonard Bernstein’s score and the visceral dance conceived by Jerome Robbins were combustible — and inseparable.

Improbably, a company of 33 has taken a period landmark on the road, with its ’50s “teenage” hoodlums, its street-gang warfare ballet and, embedded in the physical exuberance, its classic Romeo and Juliet tale of star-cross’d love impaled on the gang divide of homegrown and immigrant America. West Side Story is all about movement and music. The spectacle is youth (in peak aerobic condition) not chandeliers. The design (by James Youmans) is a stark, artfully minimalist arrangement of urban indicators — hints of fire escape gridwork, brick tenements, highways. The lighting (Howell Binkley) is a pattern of spotlights and shadows.

West Side Story needs the stage to move in, not to decorate. To see David Saint’s kinetic cast, full of great dancers, charge and leap into the Jerome Robbins choreography, as re-created by Joey McKneely, is to be reminded that you don’t get many chances to see a West Side Story where you don’t have to applaud youthful high spirits, decent singing and good intentions — and leave it at that. This is the real thing. And even if the sound mix has a tinny sheen — a frequent problem with touring shows in the Jube and one that renders too many of the lyrics indecipherable — and some of the characters remain flat, you shouldn’t miss this chance to experience it.

The opening ballet for machismo-fuelled hoodlums is explosive. It sets forth a street landscape of Buddy-Boy and Daddy-O where ethnic hostility between the territorial Polish-American Jets and the more recent Puerto Rican arrivals the Sharks, is always primed to ignite into violence. It’s all swaggering provocations, near-miss collisions, flare-ups into body slams that subside at the last second. This is the musical that made the finger-snap the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet. Michael Spencer Smith is particularly distinctive as the swaggering Bernardo, the short-fused, possessive leader of the Sharks who, as you know from the offensive insults of the cop, has received more than his share of sneers from his adoptive country. Riff, by contrast (Benjiman Dallas Redding), though a powerhouse dancer, looks like he’s been in high school too long.

At the “Dance at the Gym” the heat is raised further with the arrival of the girls, who play along the sectarian divide with fearless abandon, ’50s American sexy vs. Latino salsa. Michelle Alves is outstanding as Anita, Bernardo’s spitfire consort, who has a charismatic sensuality and ferocity, in both joy and fury, about her.

In many a West Side Story, Tony and his new Puerto Rican love Maria are cardboard ciphers, innocents who get great ballads from Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Jarrad Biron Green and MaryJoanna Grisso are livelier, more animated, more affecting in their attraction than that. And the silvery-voiced latter has the kind of secret power that galvanizes Maria’s scenes with Anita, and makes it possible for her to command the final scene.

Nothing much can be done with the unintentionally goofy Somewhere fantasy ballet, a Utopian sequence in which Maria and Tony take themselves out of the slums, and the Jets and Sharks show up in pastels and make nice with each other for a change. But the finale has been focused into a single operatic gesture by original director Arthur Laurents for a 2009 Broadway revival that includes Spanish translation for some of the lyrics. And it lands with more seismic force than the usual parade of shamefaced reformed thugs.

It’s impressive to be taken Somewhere by a company of hot dancers who know how to turn melodrama into excitement.

Ruth Myles: West Side Story tells a timeless tale of love and loss

West Side Story was a game-changer in its day. From director Jerome Robbins’ choreography — the finger snaps, synchronized dancing and nuanced physicality — to the timeless songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim — Tonight, I Feel Pretty, America, Something _ the story of warring gangs in 1950’s New York City is a cornerstone of modern musical theatre.

But that was then. (1957 to be precise.) What about now? Interestingly, the opening-night audience on Tuesday didn’t deliver the standard standing ovation that greets so many productions in Calgary. Part of the reason for that could be that West Side Story lacks the spectacle of Wicked, the sweeping scale of Les Mis or the visual wizardry of The Lion King. Just the same West Side Story deserves to be seen.

Just like reading the classics creates a foundation for reading the literary works of today (in addition to their independent artistic merits, of course), shows like West Side Story are a vital for those who care about broadening their theatre-going experiences, in addition to the inherent entertainment value.

And what an education West Side Story provides. The show opens with the Prologue as the Jets (the Polish-Americans) and the Sharks (the Puerto-Rican-Americans) face off via dance, interspersing ballet leaps and jazz moves with tight-jawed swagger meant to intimidate and lay claim to a disputed piece of pavement.

It sets up the background to a modern-day(ish) retelling of Romeo & Juliet, when former Jet Tony (Jarrad Biron Green) falls for newly arrived Puerto Rican Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso) the second he sees her at a neighbourhood mixer.

Trouble is, his young love is the sister of Bernardo (Michael Spencer Smith), the leaders of the Sharks. Spoiler alert!: things don’t end well.

When Grisso and Green pair on Tonight, Somewhere and One Hand, One Heart, the actors convey the starcrossed young lovers’ depth of emotions. In particular, the petite Grisso delivers big-time on her side of the bargain, filling the Jubilee with her song of love and longing.

The dance at the gym number is a stand out, as the 30+ cast members swirl and twirl, leap and lunge through the demanding steps. Dance is their weapon and they use it to lethal effect.

America, with Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Michelle Alves) leading the way, was equally impressive (and my God, the stamina they need for that one: the high-octane number runs four-and-a-half minutes).

Alves is an attention-magnet as Anita, drawing the spotlight with her high-octane performance. While Green’s performance of Maria wasn’t particularly memorable, the joy in his smile when he called out his beloved’s name was. The cast as a whole was strong, particularly on the dance side, and the careful costuming added punch to the performance.

Somewhere — which plays out against a bright screen that fades to a mellow yellow, all sunshine and hope — reinforces the simple yet effective staging that provides the backdrop for all the action. From the standalone fire escape that frames one side of the stage to the projection of the underside of a bridge that reinforces how trapped the characters are in their roles as gang members, all the pieces tie back into the themes of the play.

The dance at the gym is a standout number in West Side Story.

This production is based on the 2009 revival by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book. He felt the characters needed toughening up, seeing as they were engaged in a war to the death for their piece of pavement. Don’t expect the touchy-feely, come-together moment at the end that featured in the original, for one.

And Joey McKneely, who worked under Robbins in 1989’s Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, tweaked the choreography of the touring version to fit that vision. And about 10 to 15 percent of the lyrics and words are now Spanish, to better reflect the Sharks’ Puerto Rican culture. Still, the piece is of its time, and the audience is reminded of it, from “Great, Daddy-O!” to the relatively clean (swearing-wise) ethnic slurs.

But so is Romeo & Juliet. And we don’t slag it for being set in 1600. So while West Side Story is a product of its time, it is also timeless. So while the production isn’t perfect, it is a perfect opportunity for Calgarians to take in one of the seminal works of musical theatre.

Review: West Side Story, presented by Broadway Across Canada through Sunday at the Jubilee Auditorium. Tickets and info: Three and a half stars out of five.
Tags: 2013-2014 non-equity tour, jarrad biron green, maryjoanna grisso, michelle alves

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