Book by Arthur Laurents, Conceived by Jerome Robbins
Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin, Musical direction by Rick Fox
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Performed by Chilina Kennedy, Paul Nolan and company
Stratford Shakespeare Festival Production
Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 5 to October 31, 2009
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Tragic Love Story Beautifully Told
Based on the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a perfect fit for Stratford’s Festival Theatre stage. The darkness of the wooden stage, dressed with the stark balcony and fire escape ladders of tenements, transports the Festival theatre into 1957 west side New York City.
Instead of Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets involved in a family feud, West Side Story has two street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, in a turf war. The Jets are the “Americans” (ironically most of them are first generation Americans, the sons of immigrant families), and the Sharks are recent immigrants from Puerto Rico. Juvenile delinquent gangs were frequently in the news in New York in the fifties, when Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim got together to create this musical. Viewed as very controversial 50 years ago, West Side Story was declared by many too dark for a musical.
Tony, the former leader of the Jets, meets Maria, sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The two fall in love at a school dance. A rumble between the rival gangs is planned, and Maria asks Tony to put a stop to it. But the fight gets out of hand, with both Tony’s friend Riff and Bernardo killed. The story is brilliantly woven together, with beautiful music leading to the rumble at the end of Act I. In Act II, the atmosphere is lightened with Maria singing “I Feel Pretty” before she knows about the deaths. There is also a beautiful ballet sequence imagined, and comic relief as the Jets members sing a funny song “Gee, Officer Krupke”. But the harsh reality of the gang war returns in the heart-wrenching conclusion.
Chilina Kennedy, who also plays the female lead this summer in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Avon Theatre, is wonderful as Maria. Along with her beautiful voice, Kennedy adds a delightful sauciness to Maria’s character, who is usually played too demurely. This attitude builds to Kennedy’s draining performance in the final scene.
Paul Nolan, in his 3rd season at Stratford is excellent as Tony. Nolan and Kennedy’s harmony in the familiar songs such as “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight” is perfect, and the chemistry between them is palpable. Nolan also gives excellent performances in “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” – even showing that he can belt lying flat on his back.
The dance numbers are what make West Side Story such a great production. Credit goes to Sergio Trujillo for capturing the essence of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, taking full advantage of the thrust stage. When the Jets come out with the famous finger-snapping dance number, their feet barely touch the stage. The Sharks girls, in the song “America”, when they argue over whether life is better in New York or back in Puerto Rico, are all amazing dancers. The Latin dance with the girls flashing the colourful full skirts in spike heels, contrasting with the lyrics about America, is a definite audience-pleaser.
Other favourite moments include Nolan lifting himself chin-up style onto the balcony for one more kiss from Kennedy, Anita (Jennifer Rias) appearing on stage in a bubble bath (was that the partial nudity that the playbill warned of?), and the beautifully lit bridal shop number.
The Stratford Festival orchestra brings the score to life. From those first distinctive notes, you know you’re in for some superb music. With more than 25 musicians and the excellent acoustics of the Festival theatre, the sound is full and rich.
West Side Story was groundbreaking back in the fifties and has become a classic of the musical stage. As we hear the horrors of drive-by shootings and the difficulties faced by immigrants in our big cities today, we know West Side Story, like Romeo and Juliet, is timeless. Stratford has done it justice.
West Side Story continues in repertoire at the Festival Theatre, Stratford until October 31. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordshakespearefestival.ca.