Theatre review: West Side Story features some wonderful song and dance

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Benjiman Dallas Redding (2nd left) plays Riff in the touring production of West Side Story. Photo by Amy Boyle.

There is some real talent on the QE Theatre stage in the touring production of West Side Story, but few triple threats.

It is perhaps not surprisingly that a show so iconically linked to famed choreographer Jerome Robbins is full of terrific dancers.  As much a ballet as musical theatre, West Side Story relies heavily on Robbins’s powerful and distinctive choreography that is wonderfully re-interpreted and re-created by Joey McKneely for this production.  So heavy in the choreography department, for the uninitiated it may seem at times like an evening at the ballet rather than one of musical theatre.  Fortunately this young cast made up mostly of newly and nearly graduated arts students, attacks the choreography with skill and ease.

With some of musical theatre’s most recognizable songs (“Maria”, “Tonight”, “I feel Pretty”) it is also not surprising that this cast is mostly up to the challenges of Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.

Leading the way is Jarrad Biron Green as Jets leader Tony.  Green’s voice is crisp, clear and his renditions of “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” were simply spectacular.  Still pursuing his bachelors in music at New York University’s Steinhardt, Green will be one to watch.   He is matched well with Mary Joanna Grisso as Maria, whose voice belies her diminutive stature.  Together in the dream sequence “Somewhere” they are simply breathtaking and Rosalie Graziano as Anybodys gives one of the vocal highlights of the night.  Benjiman Dallas Redding does a nice job with Riff and together with the rest of his Jets are powerhouses in the larger group numbers.

Benjiman Dallas Redding (2nd left) plays Riff in the touring production of West Side Story. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Benjiman Dallas Redding (2nd left) plays Riff in the touring production of West Side Story. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Somewhat less successful is the Puerto Rican side of the equation.  Accents got in the way a number of times and the mix of English and Spanish that is weaved through this version doesn’t help, especially in the songs.  While adding an element of realism that was missing from the 1957 original, it adds an additional, and arguably unnecessary, layer to some of the most iconic songs from the American musical theatre songbook.

Ironically enough, as the students of Langara’s Studio 58 prove themselves as actors and not singers in their current production of Grease, the opposite is happening with the cast of West Side Story.  While technically the cast easily handles the music and dance, there was little emotional connection to the story.  When you’re performing in a musical based on the most tragic love story of all time it is just as important to find the emotional depth as it is in hitting all the right notes and steps.  Sometimes less is more and it was disappointing that with a few exceptions there was little in the way of subtlety from some of the performances.

Somewhat surprising was the lack of a standing ovation, a first that I can recall for any Broadway Across Canada presentation.  And while that lack of ovation may have as much to do with West Side Story’s tragic ending as it did with the performances, one can’t help but wonder if the opening night audience would have been more willing to leap to their feet if we had been able to connect a little more emotionally with the characters.

Ultimately, while this production of West Side Story features some terrific voices and some equally terrific dancing, it lacks some of the emotional weight for a story based on one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies.

Three StarsWest Side Story

Book by Arthur Laurents.  Music by Leonard Bernstein.  Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins.  Directed by David Saint. Musical direction by J. Michael Duff.  Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely.  A Broadway Across Canada and Troika Entertainment presentation.  On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through February 9, 2014.  Tickets are available online.

Mark Robins on Google+

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