West Side Story, currently being staged in Toronto, is the perfect musical for 2012, a time when America is suffering extreme divisions along racial, political, religious, and economic lines.
Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it’s become a cultural touchstone and inspired not only an award-winning film version, but countless other musicals, dance pieces, and clever parodies. The ‘Them Vs. Us’ theme takes shape when Tony, who’s a member of The Jets, falls for Maria, who’s related to the leader of The Sharks. The two gangs duke it out on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with tragic results. The idea of fear versus acceptance is one that still resonates today. Race, immigration, marriage, family law, societal, law, corruption of the powerful, the stark lines btw young and old -these elements are all at play in the 1957 musical, which boldly asks the question: what is America?
The production of West Side Story currently running in Toronto (presented by DanCap Productions) is a touring version of the 2009 Broadway revival. It goes one step further, asking what can America be, moving forwards, amidst cultural and sexual upheaval. The Sharks speak their native tongue in this version; the women aren’t content being told to know their place. According to revival director (and original book writer) Arthur Laurents, America is a place of diversity and tension, the former highlighted by the deepening of Hispanic elements and the latter by clever blocking that both reinforces the cramped living quarters poverty engenders, and the wildly free reign of kids lacking guidance and structure. Jerome Robbins’ gorgeous choreography (as interpreted for the tour by Joey McKneely) highlights this tension, challenging our notions of masculinity and toughness while seducing us with the balm of grace through a head-turn, a shoulder swivel, an arm sweep. Big emotions are played big; smaller moments are played big, but simply.
In this respect, the cast and company perform enthusiastically, with Drew Foster as Riff, and German Santiago as Bernardo, drawing much fire and machismo as the star-crossed lovers’ best friend and brother, respectively. Director David Saint, who has recreated Laurents’ vision for the road, opens with Riff at center stage, staring out at the audience coldly, his black eye and mean expression equally frightening and fascinating. Leonard Bernstein’s memorable, dramatic score offers huge dollops of romance, drama, tension and poetry, and offering two songs that encapsulate West Side Story: “America” in the first act, and “Somewhere” in the second. These, as with the show’s other, popular tunes, are performed with varying degrees of success. For instance, words to the lovely ballad “Maria” gets lost amidst tenor Ross Lekites over-modulating his voice; we understand his Tony is a deep-feeling, good boy-next-door type, but either nervousness or over-emoting interfered with what needs to be a rose-colored moment. And those words - by Stephen Sondheim -really do matter. They’re used as sharply and keenly as weapons in the rumble that closes the first act.
Evy Ortiz and Ross Lekites in the First National Tour of West Side Story.
Lekites’ mismatched co-star, Evy Ortiz, has no such trouble being understood, though her sweet soprano doesn’t match his Broadway tone, nor does it travel well to a house the size of the Toronto Centre for the Arts; in fact, the lack of projection occasionally renders her clear, ornate voice squeaky, most noticeably during “I Feel Pretty (Me Siento Hermosa)”. She also loses her character’s strong Puerto Rican accent when she sings. There may be no common consensus on the practise, or indeed any protocol, but being a part of a musical where race plays a huge role in the theme (and outcome) implies a cultural consistency that carries over to musical numbers, and it behoves performers (and their directors) to remember this. Michelle Aravena (as Bernardo’s girlfriend, and Maria’s friend, Anita) understands this a little too well. Contrasting sharply with Ortiz, her over-thick accent is difficult to decipher during her musical numbers. This is most obvious in “America”, where one has to strain to make out the famously caustic lyrics that so perfectly encapsulate the hopes of a million immigrants:
I like the shores of America!
Comfort is yours in America!
Knobs on the doors in America,
Wall-to-wall floors in America!
Aravena makes up for this tendency with truly excellent dancing and a vivid, memorable stage presence that strongly recalls her filmic counterpart. When she’s on, you simply can’t turn your eyes away - and it isn’t just that sexy purple dress (by costume designer David C. Woolard), either. To borrow from another musical, the lady has that touch of star quality.
National Tour of West Side Story, 2010. Center is Michelle Aravena & German Santiago.
The real star of this production is the dancing, however. Every single dance sequence is sensational, from the aggressive peacocking of “Dance At The Gym” to the restless moodiness of “Cool.” Choreography and staging come together gorgeously during “Somewhere” too, where Tony and Maria emerge from a blindingly-white stage that transmutes into a rainbow of bold colors, settling on a deep azure, as members of the company -Jets and Sharks alike, dressed in muted nudes -join hands and dance in a circle, a dreamy, peaceful echo of the failed attempt in the gym earlier. Alexandra Frohlinger, as the tough girl Anybodys, delivers a lovely vocal of the famous tune that’s usually delivered off-stage - a nice added touch by Laurents, allowing a character who fits nowhere to finally belong. The scene ends with Maria and Tony not in a poetic, dreamy, softly-lit embrace or a classical pas-de-deux, but in a bed we can hear rolling on and off the stage automatically. The quiet magic of the scene -and its quiet, powerful theme -get lost amidst the production’s over-reaching in the detail department; we understand the connection between Tony and Maria is primal, and we understand all that primal urge entails, but do we really need to see it acted out? It’s this kind of spoon-feeding that distracts from the great, grand majesty of West Side Story, and its bigger, meatier questions around nationality, identity, acceptance, belonging, and re-defining the American dream.
Still, it’s a testament to the greatness of the work that it still resonates so very strongly in the 21st century. The opening of the Toronto production coincided with President Obama’s revelation that he supports gay marriage; only the night before North Carolina outlawed it. I couldn’t help but think of these events as Bernstein’s beautiful music washed over me, Sondheim’s lyrics floating across the black expanse: “We'll find a new way of living / We'll find a way of forgiving... Somewhere.” For all the Tonys and Marias, all the Jets and Sharks and Puerto Ricos and New Yorks, everywhere, let’s hope so.