West Side Story: doing more with less, makes the heart and music soar
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Shaun McPherson
There can't help but be trepidation when heading to West Side Story at the Lower Ossington Theatre. The musical is full of sumptuous musical numbers that are part of our collective theatrical consciousness, but it is the choreography, originating with Jerome Robbins, that brash mixture of ballet, jazz and Latin that is the draw. In the film and in other productions, the dancing is big, with a corps that dazzles while moving in tricky unison and clockwork or counterpoint. The LOT corps is full of spectacular dancers - it is part of the training of a triple-threat - but, as I have lamented before, there just isn't enough space on the stage for them to stretch out or strut.
Set designer Michael Galloro (The Woman in Black, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hairspray) does all he can to help with yet another inventive set that looks deceptively solid and is pushed back as far as the environs will allow. But here still is not enough space for big numbers or rumbles. Director Lillian King and choreographer Kiri-Lyn Muir take a potential lemon and turn it into champagne. Instead of spectacle, they have gone for heart.
This West Side Story is almost a chamber play, pared down as far as they dare, but when the Jets, numbering only four, fingersnap, jete and advance menacingly in that Robbins crouch, they are almost part of the audience. At several points the front row appeared in imminent danger of being taken out by a stray kick or spin.
This also puts the emphasis on the youthfulness of the cast. They are far too innocent-looking to be really intimidating, but that is just what makes them dangerous. In this version the song "Gee, Officer Krupke," is still comic but also tinged with a sadness and manic menace. The Jets, with a baby-faced Robbie Fenton and a loose-limbed Travis Paul finally getting to showcase their dancing and vocals in a central role after shining in smaller but scene-stealing parts in Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins. may be small in number but they are big in bravado and close enough that the audience can see them sweat.
The intimacy is a gift to the leads and Hugh Ritchie (Into the Woods, The Mousetrap) as Tony stunned from his opening notes of "Something's Coming" through a gorgeously lush "Maria" to an aching and defiant "Tonight." When he is shot it is doubly heartbreaking as we realize he won't sing any more. Meher Pavri has a tougher job as Maria's numbers are scored operatically. She manages them nicely despite confines too small for an operatic voice, and modulates to a place where her and Tony's love is a believable palpable force. And she and Victoria Scully finesse a devastating "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love."
In 2016, with racism and crime at the forefront thanks to an American politician, the themes of West Side Story hit hard. And putting the emphasis on the emotional heart and anger and dancing it right into our laps makes the first half achingly romantic and tense, and the ending truly tragic. In 2016, in Toronto, the concept of forbidden love because of race and class should seem quaint, a historical oddity, instead it feels brutally contemporary.