Anyone thinking that West Side Story
is a dusty historical piece or a mere revival of an ancient classic should dismiss that notion and head to North York for a master class on how moving and exciting musical theatre can be. West Side Story
is a classic and the songs and imagery are part of the fabric of pop culture - what we sometimes forget is just how well done something has to be to earn that sort of honour. The score is glorious and the cast of this production sing it spectacularly. The men's room at intermission was filled with voices humming or singing under their breath (or in one case belting while he peed - in his defence the acoustics are splendid in the Toronto Centre for the Arts men's room) - the songs are that infectious and memorable. And it is to the cast's credit that they deliver the songs and choreography, both of which are extremely technically difficult, with such natural ease that the audience feels they can do it too. As the audience spilled out of the theatre - still somewhat dazed from the power of the dramatic and surprisingly gut-wrenching (we did all know what was coming) ending - there were finger snaps and sotto voce arias from a crowd that was self-deludedly transformed into Jets or Sharks: and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The original creators of West Side Story
, all theatrical legends, were all also gay men and, it being the tail end of the '50s, mostly closeted. A tale of doomed hopeless love was the original cast recording of their lifestyles and they created a lushly romantic work of art that is as elevating as it is heartbreaking. The audience understands exactly how difficult unrequited or forbidden love is - in any context. And all of the creators were/are master craftsmen. The songs are carefully constructed classics and the choreography is endlessly compelling and drives the narrative without having to resort to anything as mundane as dialogue.
In a preview interview - http://fabmagazine.com/fab-blog/theres-a-place
- dance captain Ryan Ghysels raved about the darkness and reality of this production. While the show is certainly tougher than the film (and the film is so ingrained in our psyches that it must be factored in) it is still stylized and lush and theatrical. It is a bit jarring to go from drama into a song, but the transitions get smoother as the action ramps up. And Ghysels is totally correct when he praises the ballet that opens the second act. "Somewhere" has become an unofficial gay anthem - thanks in part to Babs's rendition - and placing it in the mouth of the character of Alexandra Frohlinger's Anybodys - who in 2012 reads as trans - gives it a resonance that the film would never have dared to tackle at that time.
Ross Lekites as Tony plays the somewhat clean-cut lead with enough sex appeal - helped immeasurably when he strips to a Stanley Kowalski-style tee and flashes his biceps - to make Maria's instant adoration understandable. Michelle Aravena as Anita rips up the stage and injects heat into every scene she appears in. To point out an individual in the male ensemble would be pointless - each one is delicious eye-candy and performs the tricky task of testosterone-injected ballet moves in spectacular fashion - they are all distractingly watchable and get moments to shine. The cornucopia of chorus boys are just a tasty topping to a memorable night at the theatre.
West Side Story runs till Sun, June 3 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. dancaptickets.com