What: West Side Story
Where: McPherson Playhouse, 3 Centennial Sq.
When: April 19 through April 27
Tickets: $42/$47.50/$52.50 from rmts.bc.ca by phone at 250-386-6121 or in person at the Royal McPherson box office
At some point in their careers, stage performers evaluate their list of accomplishments in terms of productions they have appeared in and productions they have not.
Performers hold on to the hope that list one day includes West Side Story, one of the most adored and respected musicals of the modern era. The Tony Award-winning production about two rival gangs (the Jets and the Sharks) in 1950s New York was a smash hit on Broadway in 1957, and resulted in career milestones for choreographer Jerome Robbins, producer Harold Prince, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, among others. The film version from 1962 only added to the lustre, winning 10 Academy Awards and making a star out of Rita Moreno.
Victoria’s Canadian College of Performing Arts is offering students in the two-year diploma program the chance of a lifetime this weekend, in that regard. The school’s season finale will see a cast of 57 and a 14-piece orchestra take on the mammoth production for the first time in CCPA history starting tomorrow, with all the pressure that entails.
“This show is incredibly demanding in dance, singing and acting — it’s a musical that really raises the bar in terms of the demands on the performer,” said music director Heather Burns, who is also the director of education and programming at CCPA.
“Because we’re a college, the primary goal is to give the students experience that will guide them toward a professional career. We try to choose material that will challenge them, but we also try to pick material that will feature the strengths of the class.
“If we were ever going to do this show, this seemed like the year, with the students that we have. We had the people who could sing these roles.”
Samuel Radelfinger and Niah Davis play Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum who sit at the centre of the story. They carry much of the load, but dozens more play central roles in West Side Story, Burns said. Everyone at the table brought something fresh, she said, and while it shouldn’t be described as a complete transformation, several decisions were made to freshen its focus.
Choreographer Sara-Jeanne Hosie re-imagined Jerome Robbins’ iconic dance sequences, with nods to his original creation. “I have definitely infused my chroeography, in moments that were approriate, with a little bit of a modern edge,” she said. “But for the most part,I honoured the ballet-jazz aspect in its original form.”
Several fight sequences were also given a reboot, with an assist from the school’s managing artistic director, Caleb Marshall, who has extensive stage combat experience. Hosie pushed some of the boys, who did not come to the school as dancers, “to step it up,” Hosie said, and they rose to the occasion. “People know the songs from the show, but I don’t think they realize how challenging it actually is.”
A scene where a girlfriend of one of the Sharks is raped will be respectfully rendered. There was a temptation to re-write the scene, but Matthew Howe, who is directing, opted for an approach that told the story through snapshots. “We talked in rehearsals about the #MeToo movement and college hazing, and how this is happening now,” he said.
“We wanted to make some moments like that one a little more contemporary, without making it a gruesome kind of thing. This show cannot be stagey, it has to be honest. It has to feel like it is really happening. And that’s tricky with this one. It’s such an iconic piece, and for a lot of people has an imagery attached to it.”
Howe welcomed the input of Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, in order to accurately portray some of the musical’s many cultural elements. Members of the Sharks are from Puerto Rico, and the right to belong is a recurring theme, especially during one of West Side Story’s most iconic music numbers, America. The musical goes on to deal with racism, bigotry and injustice, issues which needed to be explicitly addressed, Howe said. With help from Bátiz-Benét, artistic director of Victoria’s Puente Theatre, scenes were handled with care and sensitivity.
“We didn’t cut anything. But I had to really think of of how we bring some of the horrific sides of the story to the audience in a way that is relevant now.”