Vancouver Opera's West Side Story gets cool and gritty, to mixed response
At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, October 22. Continues until October 29
There was a decidedly more casual vibe than usual at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Saturday night, when the first Canadian opera production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story was greeted with an appreciative, though not entirely enthusiastic, response.
A Vancouver Opera season opener is usually an occasion for the city’s more flamboyantly minded citizens to dig out their floor-length gowns, jewels, and clutches. But when the production comes courtesy of Broadway rather than La Scala, it seems the glam gets dialled down considerably.
First, let’s get one thing clear. This show isn’t opera—it’s musical theatre. The voices are miked, an absolute no-no in the pure opera realm and something purists aren’t likely to look kindly upon. A re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of 1950s New York, West Side Story employs athletic dance sequences and an explosive, jazzy score to enact a story of the rival gangs—the Puerto Rican Sharks and working-class white Jets—embroiled in an escalating turf war. And while the singing voices here are important, it’s really the dancing and acting that make or break the show.Thankfully, this production features the original Jerome Robbins choreography that so electrified audiences when the work premiered in 1957. More than half a century later, its swaggering, testosterone-fuelled dance sequences still have the power to surprise and enthrall, and this young cast of triple threats manages to do it real justice. Numbers like the opening prologue—which has the Sharks and Jets jeering and taunting each other with whistles, shrugs, and snaps—or the fantastic “América”—in which Puerto Rican Anita and the other Shark girls espouse their love of the new world in a shimmying, high-kicking mambo—pop with energy and charisma.
The young lovers at the heart of the action, reluctant Jet Tony and newly landed immigrant Maria, are performed by operatic tenor Colin Ainsworth and soprano Lucia Cesaroni. The rest of the roles are taken on by theatre, musical, and dance performers, most notably Wen Wei Dance’s Scott Augustine as Jets leader Riff, and Toronto stage star Cleopatra Williams as Maria’s friend Anita.
Ainsworth is perfectly charming as the lovestruck and ultimately doomed Tony. He has a sweet and compelling presence, and he gave a smooth, lyrical delivery of beloved tunes like “Maria”. Cesaroni, who has a rich, sonorous voice, has an exuberance that, when kept in check, is infectious. At times, however, as in “I Feel Pretty”, she went a tad overboard and hammed it up just a little too much.
Augustine, as Jets leader Riff, proves himself a charismatic and skilled actor and dancer. And while his voice is the weakest of the bunch, his performance is compelling for its strong physicality and solid self-assurance. The real standout here is Williams as the sultry Anita. Her voice, by no means operatic, has the most character and grit, though it was unfortunately swallowed up at times by the more powerful Cesaroni’s during their duets. And her Anita is filled with powerful resilience, even as she endures a devastating sexual assault.
Speaking of which, director Ken Cazan has really dug into the grittiness and violence of the story; there’s a menacing undercurrent that runs through the show, with numbers like “Gee, Officer Krupke”, normally a source of comic relief, taking on a more sardonic, edgier tone.
Even so, this ambitious production, which VO has given eight shows, didn’t appear to overwhelm the sizable audience. While the performers were given respectful applause, the greatest cheer was reserved for conductor Leslie Dala, who had skillfully guided the 30-piece orchestra (complete with full drum kit) through Bernstein’s rhythmically intricate score with aplomb. But in a town often so ready to get up on its feet to show appreciation, the majority of ticket holders here remained in their seats, and only rose when it came time to leave the theatre. VO might just have played it a little too cool here.