Members of the cast of the Theatre Under Stars production of West Side Story. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Members of the cast of the Theatre Under Stars production of West Side Story. Photo by Tim Matheson.

While locked to its prescribed blue collar neighbourhood of the 1950s, when coupled with a 2016 sensibility, the Theatre Under the Stars production of West Side Story comes across as a kinder, gentler version of this gritty musical.

Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this is the tale of two rival gangs battling it out for control of their New York Upper West Side neighbourhood. On one side are the Polish-American Jets, and on the other the Puerto Rican Sharks. As the turf war escalates, things become complicated as one gang member falls in love with his rival’s sister.

While director Sarah Rodgers insists in our recent interview that today’s politics are largely ignored, the parallels to what is happening south of the border are stark. As U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump plans to shut down that country’s borders, and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to blaze, it is difficult not to make a connection. It is within this context that continues to make West Side Story frustratingly relevant. After nearly fifty years since this musical first appeared on stage, it is a sad indictment of how little has actually changed.

There is hope, and that is at the centre of director Rodgers interpretation. As history has proven though, that optimism comes at a great cost. West Side Story is at its best when it refuses to shy away from its controversial material. This is not feel-good summertime fare, but that is what made it revolutionary for its time and what continues to make it relatable for audiences today.

In this production though, the necessary machismo often gives way to an almost metrosexuality, making it feel much more 2016 than 1958. This is particularly true of the two opposing gangs. And while they do some fine work in individualizing their characters, it is uneven. Perhaps ironically, it is Sara Vickruck as the single female wannabe Jet, who runs rings around her male counterparts.

Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis as the star crossed lovers. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis as the star crossed lovers. Photo by Tim Matheson.

As the two leads, Jennifer Gillis and Matt Montgomery effectively sell their sudden relationship. Gillis is suitably innocent at the start, and as the story unfolds her portrayal as Maria is heartbreaking. While Montgomery doesn’t always hit every note, he has an amazing capacity for the emotional weight of his songs.

As the doomed gang members Alen Dominguez and Daniel James White also do nice work, although White is more easily able to organically incorporate Riff’s street cred. It doesn’t take much time to pick out the Equity performer in this cast, as Alexandra Lainfiesta simply shines as Anita. Her wonderful voice is matched by her strong emotional, and sometimes comedic, performance.

Those familiar with West Side Story, whether on stage or through the film version, will immediately know that the choreography is different. Licensed separately, Theatre Under the Stars chose not to secure the rights to Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography. Director Sarah Rodgers takes a huge risk in alienating those with expectations, in her choice of contemporary dance artist, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, as choreographer.

Rodgers’ gamble largely pays off though, with Friedenberg inserting a new dynamic, which plays well to this production’s central themes and still manages to pay homage to the original. At times though, the modern feel of some of her choreography does add to the more contemporary feel of this production. Those familiar with Friedenberg’s work will recognize her style in large chunks, but there is also a nice variety to the dance numbers. Largely up to the challenges of the contemporary dance that permeates her choreography, it is in the more classic moments that this cast really shines. “America”, “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” are highlights. The dream sequence as part of “Somewhere” lends itself beautifully to Friedenberg’s contemporary dance roots.

Musical director Chris D King does nice work with his orchestra and Leonard Bernstein’s music. As he did last year in Hairspray, King also steps out of the pit and onto the stage in the role of police Lt. Schrank, giving a nice turn as one of musical theatre’s most reviled characters.

Peppered around Brian Ball’s graffiti riddled set are nods to West Side Story’s inspiration, with snippets of dialogue from Shakespeare’s tragedy. The set also becomes a canvas of sorts as cast members add to the tags over the course of this production’s nearly three hour, opening night, run-time.

In the final moments, it is the single word – love – that is spray painted in large red lettering by the youngest member of this cast, Aurielle Lingbjerg Stelau. Representing the dreams of a new generation, her visual expression puts the entire evening into focus; an aspirational message that remains the heartbeat of this show. That we are still working towards that goal though, remains simultaneously depressing and hopeful.

West Side Story based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Theatre Under the Stars production. On stage at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park in repertory with Beauty and the Beast until August 20. Visit http://tuts.ca for tickets and information.

[15 July 2016: this review was edited to more accurately describe the performances of Dominguez and White]