Bob Baker practically collapses into his seat in the Citadel boardroom. It’s exaggerated for effect—he grins as he groans—but it’s in no way fake: on a break from rehearsing West Side Story and mere hours from the show’s first preview audience, the drain of the last big push is palpable.
“I’ve been so busy on this show, it’s all I’m thinking about,” he admits. “But I’d be happy to be doing this show any time, especially a second time.”
That first time was 11 years ago, so Baker’s made it through the enduring musical’s particular rigours before—”You can go in with a certain sense of confidence that somehow, in my vague memory, we pulled this off, so it’s doable,” he says—but this second go-around is in no way a replication. For starters, this West Side is getting a jagged, cold, abstracted design, to frame the violent world of New York gangs. Further to that, Baker’s mounting it on totally different type of stage: the proscenium of Shoctor’s been traded for the 3D thrust of the Maclab.
The adapted Romeo and Juliet story—set in 1957 New York, with young love blooming between members of bitterly rival gangs, each just attempting to carve out a space to call their own—will jut out into the audience, rather than halting at the lip of the stage. Which, given the sheer song-and-dance scope of the show, has been an adventure in staging.
“I don’t think we’ve ever done a full-on dance show in that room. It’s fun. It’s interesting,” Baker says.”I think it’s fitting really well. You’re close—the fight scenes are really physical and animated, and aggressive, and some people are sitting as close as you and I are to pretty believably tough, sweaty sweat-zone action. When the actors are doing some of the numbers, you actually feel a breeze on you in the audience. You’re that close.”
The cast are this year’s graduates from the Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program, which annually sees Baker, instructors and the participants decamp to the centre for five weeks of theatrical boot camp: unlearning bad habits and approaching different elements of the craft in an instruction-based setting. It’s a rare opportunity, once you’re out of theatre school and into the professional world.
“A lot of them were musical-theatre people, and they hadn’t said Shakespeare before, or Chekhov, ever. So they got deeply immersed in that and discovered, ‘Hey, I can actually do this,'” Baker notes. “They’ve got the same kind of hunger that the characters in the play have, for protecting their turf. They have passion, and they’ve just turned that passion towards telling this story. They took it out of my hands quite quickly. I don’t have to say, ‘Mean this more!’—they get it, and they’re ready to go, and they’re ready to combat, and they’re ready to commit.”
This West Side Story also marks the end of Baker’s final season as the Citadel’s artistic director, though he isn’t vanishing from the company. He’ll continue to lead the professional program for a few years, and direct; but for the first time in a long time, he’ll be able to focus solely on the art, without having to juggle the administrative duties alongside the shows.
“It’s bittersweet,” he admits. “I don’t want to ever stop directing or teaching, but I don’t necessarily need to be an administrative end of a large institution any longer, because that’s a road I’ve travelled. I’m looking forward to not carrying that weight on a 24/7—for 17 years here—basis, and to be able to focus just on a show I’m doing.”
Until Sun, May 22 (7:30 pm; additional 1:30 pm matinees on Sunday)
Directed by Bob Baker
Citadel Theatre, $30 – $120.75