Theatre Review: West Side Story
By Allan Gould
The touring production of West Side Story still nails the show’s complex choreography (Copyright Carol Rosegg 2011)
West Side Story is a remarkably good musical, surely one of the greatest. Since I first saw it half a century ago, this musical has lived in my memory — and those of several million others — with profound pleasure and meaning, like a first kiss in high school.
This show, a modern reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, has a complex history. My favourite anecdote is how in 1957, Leonard Bernstein and his 26-year-old lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, realized just days before opening night on Broadway that the first minutes were missing a song: Tony (the modern Romeo) simply had to better display his excitement for what might occur at the school dance later that evening. And so Bernstein and Sondheim sat together and knocked off “Something’s Coming,” an amazingly haunting tune with complex lyrics. It was rapidly taught to the cast and musicians, and presented before a live audience just days later. Wow.
With two bodies lying dead at the end of the first act, and one half of the main couple shot at the end of the play, one could hardly describe West Side Story as a musical comedy. It is a powerful blend of romance, love, rage and racism mixed with dynamic dance (choreographed by the super-gifted Jerome Robbins) and Bernstein’s irresistible jazzy music. For all its lack of the Bard’s magnificent poetry, the plot is extraordinarily faithful to the original Romeo and Juliet, and Sondheim’s intricate and daring rhymes are unforgettable.
So I was bursting with anticipation for opening night of this thrilling and deeply satisfying musical, presented in Toronto by Dancap. This is the touring version of a recent, highly-praised Broadway production that was directed by Arthur Laurents, the author of the original book.
I have seen this musical put on a half-dozen times and on each occasion it has moved me to tears. This time, it did not. Why that is, it’s hard to say. Was it because it lacked the perfect casting of Canada’s own Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy as Tony and Maria of three summers ago at Stratford? Was it because of the cast’s uneven singing skills, even if most of the dancing was near perfect?
This visiting production is worth seeing, but there is something lacking here. Lovers of Bernstein and Sondheim will still get their thrills, as will those who treasure Robbins’ still-stunning choreography. The scenic design by James Youmans was stunning, Ross Lekites’ Tony was solid and the important character of Anybodys, the hanger-on of the Jets, was sung and played perfectly by Alexandra Frohlinger — the best embodiment of that ambiguously sexual role I’ve ever seen. All kudos to her.
I just wish it all hung together better; that the still-shocking ending did not feel so rushed; that not a single precious Sondheim rhyme was mumbled; that Officer Krupke, Doc the pharmacist and the racist Lieutenant Schrank were better acted. I’m still glad I saw it, but I left feeling disappointed.
But that music, those lyrics, the dancing! You may still find yourself humming the tunes on your way home.
Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St., 416-733-9388. To June 3.