There’s a tale for us in TUTS musical…somewhere

West Side Story plays Theatre Under The Stars until August 20 featured on www.vancouvertheatre.ca

West Side Story plays Theatre Under The Stars until August 20 – Photo: Tim Matheson

 Review by Olivia Morgan

Touching on the bleak choices faced by those in poverty, tensions between immigrants and locals, and the ugliness of police overreach, it’s not difficult for West Side Story to feel relevant.

But with tricky harmonies, prolonged dance numbers, and characters who need to boil white hot throughout a lengthy show, it can be a challenge to mount.  It’s something made all too clear by the production running at Theatre Under the Stars.

Tragic love

West Side Story is the American musical version of “Romeo and Juliet”. Tony, of the white and ‘native’ born New York gang The Jets, falls for Maria at first sight. The only problem: Maria’s older brother heads up The Sharks – the Puerto Rican gang battling the Jets for territory.

The two lovers strain against the reality they live within, determined to be together despite the odds. As tensions between the Jets and Sharks boil over, Tony’s best friend Riff and Maria’s brother Bernardo are killed.  Complications continue to mount and prove too much, even for true love to conquer.

Production misses inherent danger

The friction in West Side Story should be dialled up throughout. There are literally lives at stake. But in this semi-professional production, a majority of the performers are emerging artists, and they seem completely out of touch with the reality their characters are dealing with. As the gangs plan their rumble, they speak of bringing pipes and knives to the battle. But it’s difficult to feel any real danger as almost no one in the cast looks like they’ve ever been anywhere near a fight.

Director Sarah Rodgers has set the action of the musical on a stage surrounded by graffiti – much of it snatches of lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with words missing. During scene transitions, cast members complete the lines by spray painting the missing text. It’s a little on the nose.

Moment of tragedy met with laughter

Rodgers extends her graffiti motif to dress up Tony’s death.  Upon being shot, a cast member jumps out and sprays his heart with red paint. On opening night, the stunt elicited audible laughter – hardly the expected reaction to a hero’s death.

The original production of West Side Story is known for its lengthy and varied dance sequences, brilliantly conceived by Jerome Robbins.

Choreography has mixed success

In this production, choreographer Tara Cheyenne Freidenberg turns expectations on their ear with mixed success.

When Tony and Maria (Jennifer Gillis) first lay eyes on each other, their communities gather behind them, swaying back and forth like waves. It speaks to the inevitability of what’s to come – the lovers’ downfall crashing in like a tide. In other parts of the show however, her style seems totally out of place. Lengthy narrative dance sequences feel like modern dance piece dropped in the middle of a musical, with no clear tie to the plot, and the “Dance at the Gym” is just a mess.

The costumes are equally a mess. Chris Sinosich’s designs are all over the map; dresses fit poorly, some pieces have a modern rockabilly feel rather than seeming authentic to the 50s, and during the Dance at the Gym, one young woman wears combat boots.

Challenging Music

The music in West Side Story is so stunning that even in a weak production, its presence should keep the ship afloat. But it’s hard material and many in this production aren’t up to the task. As Tony, Matthew Montgomery is pitchy throughout.  Numbers like “Tonight” which should float above us, come crashing to earth as he tries to find his note.

The work from the orchestra pit doesn’t fare much better. This may have had something to do with the bewildering choice to double Musical Director Chris King as Lieutenant Shrank. With his focus split between acting and conducting, he excels at neither.

Standout performances

So is there anything to like in this production? Yes – three fine performances.

Daniel James White as Riff, is a breath of fresh air. He moves like liquid, he gets his character’s simmering danger, and his voice is gold. As Bernardo, Alen Dominguez achieves great success in keeping things simple, and brings deep credibility to the role. Unfortunately, these characters die before intermission, and their presence is sorely missed in the second half. In the role of Anita, Alexandra Lainfiesta brings joy, humour and heat.

This show is so rich that almost 60 years after its first production the material is still relevant.

Lieutenant Shrank brags of his power over The Sharks because they are ‘others’, saying, “I got the badge and you got the skin.” Today, with reports of police brutality against non-whites coming out of the U.S. at an almost weekly basis, it’s a telling, chilling line.

The Bottom Line

West Side Story has the potential to be a beautiful and wrenching reminder that while there have been gains in the fight for equity and equality, as a society we still have many miles to go. An excellent production of this show would drive that point home easily. This production isn’t up to the task.

West Side Story

Theatre Under The Stars

Malkin Bowl, Stanley Park

Playing until August 26
Plays in repertory with Beauty and the Beast
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Review: West Side Story
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