West Side Story still packs a punch

The Vancouver Opera production of West Side Story opened last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Thanks to a wonderful early birthday gift to Sweetie from her sister, we had great seats in the left centre dress circle.

This was my first time at the QE. I've never seen so many dressed up Vancouverites! It did this girl's heart good. We were early enough to be able to wander around the lobbies on the various levels and do some people watching. Somehow I figured I would spot a celebrity or two on opening night, but I didn't see any. I did, however, see some sartorial excellence. We did our part. Not quite floor-length gowns, but Sweetie was wearing a pretty and very complimentary purple dress while I went in my red "Mad Men" (as Sweetie calls it) dress, complete with faux pearl necklace.

For both of us, West Side Story is the greatest musical of all time. So I will try to make this a review. But let's just say that I had raccoon eyes by the end of the show (and probably well before that) because waterproof mascara is never as waterproof as it's supposed to be.

Overall, the production was brilliant. I think the strongest aspect was the dancing. Apparently, they were using Jerome Robbins's original choreography, and it was a real treat to see. The dancers were so strong! They really brought a thrilling visual element to scenes such as "Dance at the Gym" and the song "Cool."

Colin Ainsworth, who played Tony, has a gorgeous, strong tenor voice. Lucia Cesaroni, who played Maria, is a trained opera singer but kept it nicely toned down. Their duets worked very well despite the very different quality of their voices. Scott Augustine, who played Riff, is apparently mostly a dancer. His singing could definitely have been stronger. But the heart of the story is Anita, and Cleopatra Williams played and sang her brilliantly. Supporting the singers was a superb pit orchestra. Such a treat to have live instrumentation!

The staging was stark, dark, and simple as it really must be. Various gang members (and Anybodys) climbed up and over a chain link fence. Kudos to the designer and builders of that piece of staging! The use of rolling stair-ladders was also excellent during Maria and Tony's "balcony scene" after the dance.

Kudos as well to whoever stepped in as Snowboy (I think it was Stephen Cota) and especially to Shawna Parry, who filled in as Anybodys. That is another pivotal role, and she did an excellent job.

Sweetie has the soundtrack memorized. I'm getting closer. We thoroughly enjoyed such crowd pleasers as "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," and "Gee, Officer Krupke." Tear ducts were fully in gear by the time Tony sang "Maria," partly because of the song and partly because of his beautiful voice. The "One Hand, One Heart" scene was wonderfully touching. And by the time Maria and Anita sang their duet "I Have a Love," I had completely lost it.

There are the edgy parts as well, mostly in small hints until the end. The fatal stabbings at the end of act one hit hard. And despite the stylization, the brutality of the scene at Doc's in which the Jets assault Anita was clear—and devastating. It's difficult for me even to write about it.

This was only my second time seeing West Side Story on stage. I have seen the film version more times than that, and for better or worse the film version sometimes gets stuck in my head. So I found that the dream-dance sequence that accompanies "Somewhere," with a recorded (originally off stage) song playing, for me undercut the emotional impact of that song. I'm usually a puddle when they sing "There's a place for us / Somewhere a place for us." In the film, I'm pretty sure that song is sung as a duet between Tony and Maria. I'm also pretty sure that the production I saw a few years ago at the Massey Theatre in New West went with something closer to the movie version, because I really was a puddle that time. So in this case, I think the film improves on the original staging. But maybe that's just me.

As well, it was definitely opening night. The first act was brilliant. The timing in the second act was not quite as smooth. Some things seemed to happen more quickly than they ought to have done. I'm sure they'll fix that as the show continues.

This West Side Story is a production well worth seeing. And I think the play still hits with devastating impact more than 50 years after it was first staged. No one talks that way anymore. Yet they still fight that way. It's just that the weapons are deadlier now.


Anonymous said...

Truly one of my all-time favs and, like you, I favor the movie but probably because as a little girl I watched Natalie Wood and thought she was so brave a girl in that movie, to go against everyone and everything. It was only later, that I realized her naivete and my own, when watching it as an adult. As a child, there were just scenes I could never get to or understand some like the one with Anita, thankfully so (I thought they were just harassing her.) Anyway, I grew up to be a die hard musicals fan (between that and Grease) as well as a Shakespeare fan, most likely venturing into the Bard's territory more easily than my peers for having been exposed to Romeo and Juliet through this piece first. In any case, I adore this play and the movie (I even have the soundtrack on vinyl- ;)

Thanks for sharing V! Glad you had a good (albeit weepy) time.

Anji said...

I enjoyed reading your review. i love West side story too. I was discussing the show and Romeo and Juliette with one of my students last week. A timeless story.

Véronique said...

I don't remember when I first saw the film of West Side Story. I probably saw Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet first. Olivia Hussey was so wonderful as Juliet! And Leonard Whiting's Romeo might have been a ditz, but he sure was pretty.

I think the West Side Story film made improvements, despite the softening of certain edges. The rewrite of "América" is superior to the original, as is the fact that it's a back-and-forth between the girls and the boys. I think moving "Gee, Officer Krupke" to the first act works better. And I don't think anyone has ever been a better Doc than Ned Glass.

I love both R&J and WSS. I hope Bard on the Beach stages R&J again. Sure, it's a chestnut, but it's also a great story!