Broadway Across Canada National Tour West Side Story

Originally performed on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story is set in Upper West Side New York and tells the story of two rival street gangs, the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The gangs fight for turf – prized ownership of a street corner. The show opens with members of both gangs picking at one another and friendly little slaps and punches, setting the stage for a more dramatic rumble under the bridge later in the first act.

During a dance at the local gym, former Jets member Tony (Jarrard Biron Green) falls for young Maria (Maryjoanna Grisso), a recent Puerto Rican immigrant, and more importantly, sister to the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (Michael Spencer Smith). Tony and Maria very quickly catch one another’s eye at the dance (in my mind, too quickly, as there’s very little passion shown on stage during their meeting) and fall in love.

Broadway Across Canada National Tour West Side Story
[West Side Story National Tour]

As Tony and Maria’s worlds collide, plans are underway for a rumble, as the gangs discuss the rules at Doc’s Drug Store, during the War Council. Doc’s becomes neutral ground for gang meetings, but tension mounts in the cramped shop, leading to the big showdown.

Tony and Maria’s lack of chemistry is a big problem in this production. I’d have expected someone strong and robust in voice and stature to compliment petite Maria as she transforms into a young woman during the story.

Maryjoanna Grisso and cast
[Maryjoanna Grisso and cast]

The idea for a Spanish/English production originated with Tom Hatcher, the late partner of Arthur Laurents. He believed that the story might come across as more balanced after having seen a production of West Side Story in Bogota, Colombia. So began a six month search through Central and South America to find Latino performers. The 2009 Broadway revival saw more Spanish dialogue, and while Broadway Across Canada’s production has cut back on the Spanish (by between 10 and 15%), the show still assumes that the audience knows some Spanish.

There are obvious words that translate into emotion, but I’m not talking about that portion of the dialogue. There was simply too much banter to really get an understanding of what was going on at times. The shouting was also hard to follow. There was a very abrupt scene change that felt very much out of place following the rumble.

Michelle Alves, Maryjoanna Grisso
[Michelle Alves, Maryjoanna Grisso]

I felt that Maria’s strongest vocal moment came towards the end of the show, in a duet with Anita (“I Have a Love”). I did very much enjoy the fun, excellently-choreographed “Gee, Officer Krupke”.

While West Side Story may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I found that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s dance performance last weekend at the same venue contained more passion — without one word being uttered. The cast work very well together, but in terms of stand-out roles, Anita (played by talented and energetic Michelle Alves) takes the honours in this one.

West Side Story National Tour
[West Side Story National Tour]

Costumes and choreography are easily the show’s two strongest assets. David Woolard’s colourful, flouncy dresses, particularly during the dance scenes, are a pleasure to watch together with Lighting Designer Howell Binkley’s atmospheric colour combinations.

Dance at the gym
[Dance at the gym; West Side Story National Tour]

The gangs have their own colours and wear timeless pieces (The Sharks, in vivid purple, are clearly the dressier of the two).

Choreographer Jerome Robbins makes the dance scene flow effortlessly, while the gang numbers are energetic and fun to watch.

West Side Story continues through February 9 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Photos courtesy of ©

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