West Side Story, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s Manhattan, overflows with sizzling attitude, from its sassy leading ladies to its edgy rumble scenes. The original Broadway performance of Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein’s musical caused a splash by tackling the gritty reality of New York gang rivalry, bringing the passion of the city’s divided youth to the stage. The Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s West Side Story borrows to a limited extent from the musical’s original inspiration, presenting a well-executed production that lacks emotion in some parts.
Director Rebecca Pearl explains how, before the popularity of renowned shows such as Hairspray and Rent, West Side Story was the first Broadway musical to portray the experience of a young population. Pearl expresses some desire to play with the original script in her production. Musical numbers are switched around – the giddy and lovesick “I Feel Pretty” comes after, rather than before, the death of Maria’s lover, creating narrative irony. Pearl’s production retains the moral lesson Shakespeare first delivered in Romeo and Juliet: social groups must learn to live together despite their differences in order to avoid mutual self-destruction; the timeless lesson is clear in Pearl’s production. Romeo and Juliet’s narrative is universally relatable. West Side Story is also a compelling depiction of 1950s Manhattan. Had she brought more of the original production’s intensity to AUTS’ version, Pearl would have delivered a richer, more engaging, and more authentic world. It is the contextual origin of West Side Story and its basis in real events, which renders its lesson so powerful.
The underlying frustration of the gangs in their fight over their small turf, as they try to adjust and adapt to the realities of immigration, is a central pillar of West Side Story’s appeal. Although this came through in some of the musical numbers, at other times the portrayal bordered on the mechanical, as some cast members didn’t fully embody their characters’ turbulent emotions. Perhaps this is due to the cast’s unfamiliarity with certain aspects of musical productions. Most cast members had a background in acting, singing, or dancing – but rarely all three together. While this is understandable for a cast largely composed of non-theatre students, the choice of West Side Story may not be ideal for timid performers. It’s a show that needs confident leaping dance moves, powerfully clenched fists, and booming voices. The conviction that the characters have something to fight for must be communicated unequivocally to the audience.
Pearl’s background as a dancer led her to focus on movement as an inherent part of West Side Story. The excitement of the dance choreography, intended for a large troupe, was not fully transmitted to the smaller cast of Pearl’s production. But fortunately, Pearl retains West Side Story’s classic moves, albeit on a smaller scale. The confrontations, orchestrated by fight choreographer Isaac Robinson, contain some of the most successful movement in the production. A few clumsy face-slaps aside, Robinson manages to deliver visually compelling and emotionally engaging fight scenes while staying true to West Side Story’s iconic dance-fighting style. Brawls are fluidly executed as opponents dance around each other, dodging strikes.
Vanessa Drusnitzer’s Anita and Ryan Kligman’s Riff deliver the most potent cool factor in the production. Garbed in brightly coloured taffeta and silk dresses, Anita and her cronies are bold, clever, and amusing. Drusnitzer has adopted the sashay and fiery sophistication that suit Anita so perfectly. Drusnitzer is passionate throughout, performing without lapse her dual role of confident, independent young lover, and distraught, vengeful widow. Kligman, as Riff, has all the self-assurance required to portray the leader of the Jets. While other gang members seem hesitant at times, Kligman plays a palpable Riff, successfully depicting a cool-headed leader with a passionate undercurrent.
To Pearl’s credit, the soft aspects of the production are strong: Piper Ainsworth, as Maria, sings a stirring soprano. Christopher Stevens-Brown, as Tony, also has strong potential as a vocalist, but is, at times, pushed to sing out of his range, lending a halting cadence to the couple’s duets.
Choosing such a successful and popular musical poses a great challenge to any director, who must inevitably live up to the notable versions already produced. Like many classic musicals, West Side Story calls for a highly dramatic performance, a strong communication of the unique historical circumstances of the tale that reaches out to audience members through fervent emotion. While the plot is sufficiently poignant to make almost any production enjoyable, Pearl’s production, although solid, is at times hindered by its lack of confidence.