It took us a while, but Richard and I finally made to the venerable Malkin Bowl for this year's iteration of Theatre Under the Stars. Eschewing all things Disney for the classic idiom of American musical theatre, we chose to see West Side Story, and we certainly had beautiful night for it.
I've seen the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, but never a live production of the musical, not even the version staged by the Vancouver Opera a few years ago. Leonard Bernstein's score is certainly operatic, not least in the signature numbers Maria and Tonight and Somewhere. But the orchestrations also draw as much, if not more, from jazz, with Bernstein ably distilling that form's polyglot influences into a story about the tragic consequences of a cross-cultural love affair. That said, under musical director Chris D. King (who also, somewhat mysteriously, doubles as the racist detective Schrank, requiring him to vacate his conductor's box for long stretches), the playing last night seemed a little underwhelming, even slow. Many of the jazzier numbers lacked pep to my admittedly untrained ears.
Notwithstanding all the glorious music (supplemented of course by the wonderful lyrics of Stephen Sondheim), it is the dancing that has always set West Side Story apart. The great Jerome Robbins (who also conceived and directed the musical's Broadway premiere) was responsible for the original choreography, which has become so iconic--all those finger snaps and high-flying leaps--that it continues to be quoted everywhere. Local dance artist and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg was given the unenviable task of creating a completely new movement score for this production (she had to sign a waiver from the Robbins estate attesting to this), while also providing enough of an homage to encourage buy-in from audience members familiar with the musical's choreographic pedigree. She succeeds brilliantly, drawing on period street dance idioms, contemporary acro, and her own take on classic mambo and waltz steps (especially in numbers like America and I Feel Pretty). She is aided immeasurably by her talented cast, especially the boys who make up the rival Jets and Sharks gangs, who are able to get so much air in the opening prologue (a musical theatre movement sequence that, when it first appeared, was as groundbreaking as Agnes de Mille's famous dream ballet in Oklahoma!) that one would think they were experts parkourists (Brian Ball's brilliant set of moveable scaffolding aids immeasurably in this regard). The second act number Gee, Officer Krupke is also a terrific showcase for the movement talents of the Jets half of the male ensemble, with William Edward Hutchinson (as Action) and Kurtis D'Aoust (as Big Deal) demonstrating admirable strength and flexibility respectively. (An interesting side note: for all the progressive social politics regarding the treatment of Puerto Rican immigrants embedded into Arthur Laurents' book to West Side Story, it is noticeable just how much less stage and singing time the Sharks get throughout the production.)
Not that the women in the show are slouches in the dancing department. Friedenberg's update of the shimmying salsa steps and kicks accompanying America requires speed and precision and, above all, abundant personality. The women, led by a terrific Alexandra Lainfiesta as Anita, more than deliver. I also very much appreciated those moments when Friedenberg slowed things down, as when Tony and Maria first spot each other at the school dance, with the rest of the cast swaying in place as the doomed lovers move towards each other from across the room, pulled by a force they are unable to resist. During the dream sequence in Act 2 Friendenberg also features some interesting partnering, suggesting in her same-sex pairings that the right to choose whom one loves extends beyond cultural difference.
I have spent so much time talking about the dancing in this production because, frankly, the singing was only so-so. Jennifer Gillis, as Maria, and Matt Montgomery, as Tony, make a winsome couple, but vocally they failed to impress. Montgomery can hit the high notes, but he needs greater depth and projection in the lower range to make a song like Maria truly soar. Gillis certainly has power, but her soprano often lacks nuance and without the right control comes across as a bit shrill in the upper register. When she is forced to reign things in a bit, as in the delightful I Feel Pretty, the results are quite pleasing. By contrast, Lainfiesta's Anita and Daniel James White's Riff, are standouts in both their singing and their acting, which in turn points to one of the central paradoxes of this work: pace Shakespeare, the secondary characters are far more interesting than the leads.
And speaking of folks in the background making an impression. Director Sarah Rodgers chooses to end the show with a reprise of Somewhere, but this time sung as a solo by Daren Dyhengo, who plays the otherwise mostly anonymous Shark Luis. Dyhengo has a beautiful tenor and his rendition of the song was perhaps the single most electrifying musical moment in the whole production. Which begs the question: why wasn't he front and centre from the beginning?