Festival Players bring West Side Story to Edmonton

West Side Story seems to be one of those cultural things that everyone innately knows. As with a lot of Bernstein musicals, even if you haven’t seen the show, you’ll recognize the iconic songs (how about “I feel pretty, oh so pretty”?). In a nutshell, West Side Story is a 1950s interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet where the star-crossed lovers are Tony and Maria. The setting shifts from Verona to New York and instead of Montagues and Capulets we’ve got rival ethnic gangs the Jets (Caucasian) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican) who clash with each other and the police in their blue collar neighbourhood.

At its heart, the show is about community – who’s in, who’s out and why they’re in or out. The first, and most obvious, expression of that theme is the idea of citizenship and who is “American”. Although Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898, the Sharks are called immigrants while the Jets are mostly first generation Americans, but still don’t face as much prejudice as the Puerto Ricans. Officer Krupke, whose actions are made even more poignant by the protests happening in the U.S., is unnecessarily aggressive and violent towards the Sharks, while trying to mentor and advise the members of the Jets who he regards as “real” Americans. After seeing this advertisement earlier last week, Krupke definitely underlined the history of racial prejudice in the United States.

The show also tackles the idea of hierarchy within a community with the characters Anybody’s and Rosalia. Anybody’s is a young girl who wants to join the Jets (much to the amusement of the boys in the gang, who have the “she’s just a girl” attitude) and spends most of the show trying to prove her worthiness. Meanwhile, one of the show’s most catchy songs, “America” is a duet between Rosalia, who is nostalgic for Puerto Rico, and Anita who loves living in America and ridicules Rosalia for seeing anything good in Puerto Rico, while simultaneously commenting on the lack of awareness that Puerto Rico is part of America.

I never really realized what a big show West Side Story is. For this production, Festival Players has assembled a cast of more than 40, a 20-piece orchestra, and a crew of 15. Where you notice the challenge this huge cast presents is in Shelley Tookey’s precise choreography, which makes the most of the large, complicated ensemble dance numbers in the comparatively small playing space. A few times I looked at the number of actors on stage and held my breath throughout the dance numbers, but there were no accidental collisions on stage. I really enjoyed Shelley’s ballet-inspired and Latin choreography in the show. It was awesome to be able to see the two very different styles together on the same stage, especially during the high school dance scene.

Another great piece of choreography was the rumble scene. I love getting the opportunity to see large male ensembles in choreographed dance or fight scenes (or both!) because it’s such a different dynamic than we typically see on stage. The rumble choreography, with Riff (Jake Cox) and Bernardo (Stephen Allred) literally jumping and being caught by the members of their respective gangs and being tossed back into the playing space, was thrilling to watch.

Perhaps it was because it is such a large cast, but a few characters and relationships could have been developed more fully. As Chino, I would have liked to have seen Austin Capcara play the role a little more aggressively so that it makes sense later as he kills Tony. I would have also liked to have seen more development of the relationship – even if it was just physically – between Maria and Chino. As it was, I had a hard time determining what their relationship was – Maria wasn’t interested in Chino, but how does he feel about her? Is he bothered by Maria falling in love with Tony? For me, these questions were left unanswered and could have been elaborated on by the actor’s demeanor and physical relations with one another.

I was particularly impressed by actors Marissa Dingle (Anita) and Katherine Pohoreski (Maria). As firecracker Anita, (Sharks leader Bernardo’s girlfriend) Marissa Dingle was excellent. Anita takes quite the emotional journey throughout the play, but all along the way, Marissa played every emotion in a way that felt very genuine. My favourite numbers were, of course, where she was being sassy, but her moments of grief were equally believable and sobering. Somewhat on the other end of the spectrum of female characters, the role of Maria is based on Shakespeare’s Juliet, and I enjoyed Katherine Pohoreski’s interpretation of that role as equal parts youthful innocence and mature self-assurance.

Leland Stelck’s set was visually stunning. It was reminiscent of STOMP‘s set (if you saw it when it was in Edmonton in 2011), with it’s red brick back-alley permanent set pieces that extend up to the vertical top of the stage. When the setting changed from a nondescript back-alley to a specific location, Leland used these beautiful, stylized photographs to instantly transport us to the new location.

Notwithstanding any shortcomings in the production, it’s when you see the entire cast on stage when you realize why community theatre is important in Edmonton. West Side Story is such a large, involved production that it would be too expensive for a paid cast and crew to put on in Edmonton. Without community theatre, I doubt we’d be able to see a local production of West Side Story. Sure, we get to see renditions of it when Broadway Across Canada comes to town, but there’s something about seeing Edmonton’s unique theatre aesthetic applied to these large shows, never mind the opportunities for the actors playing these iconic roles.

West Side Story plays at Festival Place until December 30. Tickets are $24 – $37.

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