By Colin Maclean
Back in 2005 when director Bob Baker brought his superlative production of West Side Story to the Citadel there was a feeling of it being “unfinished” – the run ended too soon.
Audiences were clamouring for tickets – the performers certainly felt they had more to offer. But it was a co-production with a Calgary company and had to move south.
Last year, when Baker was casting about to see what production the theatre might bring back to help celebrate its 50th anniversary, the result was near unanimous.
So West Side Story, a new take on the venerable 1957 show, opened at the Citadel Theatre Thursday night.
Baker has not only brought a refreshed view, but has mounted it on the thrust stage of the Maclab theatre. The show now sticks out into the audience and the exuberant, athletic dancing brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “in your face.” You’re right in the middle of the rumble between the street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, sharing their youthful passions and marveling at the expressiveness of the dancers as they forcefully hurtle around you. The flip side of that is the thrust stage pushes the dancers forward, and despite Laura Krewski’s expansive choreography some of the dances felt constrained, missing the opportunity to stretch out.
Original director Jerome Robbins’ choreography changed musical theatre forever, demonstrating that movement and dance can advance story and characterization as well as can dialogue, music and lyrics. Krewski (whose dances smoothy fuse with fight director Jonathan Purvis’ headlong street battles) does an excellent job at blowing the dust off the old moves – while observing the groundbreaking approach of the original.
Stephen Sondheim, who was 27 years old at the time, has often commented on his unhappiness with his lyrics, but they have certainly stood the test of time. The street gang patois he invented for the gangs (to avoid using the F-bomb and other common four letter words unacceptable on stage at the time) still sounds uncomfortable, but the sheer poetry of songs like Somewhere and Tonight resonate. Leonard Bernstein’s music, which was advanced for its time, maintains its ever-building lyric intensity.
Baker’s production features 20 students from the Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Actors program and the group has had weeks of intense interaction, both at Banff and at the Citadel, so their synergy is both intimate and grand.
The story gravitates around Maria (Eva Tavares) a young, innocent Puerto Rican immigrant and Tony (George Krisssa) a Polish-American lad from an earlier migration. The evening closely follows its obvious inspiration – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The hatred between two street gangs boils over, which ultimately leads to a “rumble” that leaves both gang leaders dead of knife wounds. The show ends unhappily for all.
The lovely and vulnerable Tavares exhibits an appealing voice which sustains its power (and amazing reach) through both the physical and romantic demands. Krissa is a revelation. He takes the usually whitebread character of Tony and with a strong, dimensional stage presence and expressive tenor voice, gives us an immensely likeable kid. A quite believable bond develops between the two. Citadel vet Pamela Gordon (Cabaret) as the fiery Anita, burns up the stage both in song and dance.
Nick Blais’ clever set at first seems the traditional metal staircases and fences but becomes amazingly adaptable as it breaks apart and glides about the stage, becoming any number of effective urban landscapes. Don Horsburgh’s 12 piece-band ably delivers one of Broadway’s most difficult scores and is impressively supportive of the performers.
Baker’s production may have tapped into Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tale of love amidst warring clans, but his vibrant Citadel production makes a touching statement that is very much of today.
West Side Story plays through May 22 on the Maclab stage. This show is the last in Baker’s 17 year tenure as Artistic Director of the Citadel Theatre – and he was given a heartfelt standing ovation by the audience.