Arts Theatre

West Side Story stands the test of time

// David Cooper
// David Cooper

It begins, as it’s wont to do, with finger snaps.

On a scaffold-like set that breaks apart to reconfigure as need be, we meet the Sharks and Jets, whose bitter rivalry, brawling for turf on the streets of New York, propels West Side Story. It’s 1957: cops are openly racist to the Puerto Rican Jets—something that resonates vividly today, in the wake of the last few years of unrest in modern-day America—and few are the prospects of a better life for youth like these. It’s a violent world, where even expressions like dancing seem to be as much about defiance as anything else.

The Romeo and Juliet story at its heart—Tony (George Krissa), a Jet, falls into doomed romance with Maria (Eva Tavares), sister of a Shark—is defiant, too: blindly naive, something that doesn’t fit into the well-defined, us-or-them rules of the gang world. And while West Side Story is an ever-enduring musical, with a production like this season-ending Citadel one, it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t feel like an obligatory classic—it’s a legitimately lively one.

The music, for the most part, soars—the cast, all from the Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program, possess some willfully gilded pipes—the staging feels crisp and alive: the thrust stage, jutting into the audience, keeps the action close, feeling more dynamic and less like, well, choreography. Director Bob Baker, as well as fight director Jonathan Purvis and choreographer Laura Krewski, keep it all flowing, with the set (designed by Nick Blais) reshaping itself on-stage as necessary.

But where Baker’s take on West Side Story really crackles to life is in playing up the danger in the air, and the posturing of its wayward youth. What comes through clearest in this production, in among joyful songs and blooming romance, is its dark social undercurrent: that these are kids raised by a violent world (and played by 20-something actors). You can see it in the uncertainty that crosses their face after an accidental stabbing that sets the story’s central romance on its doomy, final path; the way Anybodys (Melanie Piatocha) hides in a corner when her crew harass Anita (Pamela Gordon, truly excellent throughout). The song “Officer Krupke” plays for comedy—the Jets impersonate their way through the legal and punitive and rehabilitative systems that they’re easily capable of slipping through because adults don’t know how to handle them—but has an unspoken darkness underneath that lingers. That it all still works today is a testament to the script and music, of course, but also to all of this production’s moving parts, all of which make it feel so realized in execution.

Until Sun, May 22 (7:30 pm; additional 1:30 pm matinees on Sunday)
Directed by Bob Baker
Citadel Theatre, $30 – $120.75

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