Theatre Under the Stars disgraces West Side Story

Director Sarah Rodgers leads a creative team who butchers an American theatre classic, despite having a talented cast.

West Side Story is an iconic American musical known for its powerful message and brilliant showcase of dance and music. Unfortunately, Theatre Under the Stars’ (TUTS) current production running at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park is so disappointing that it will break the heart of theatre fans.

The Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story of Tony and Maria, two teens from different ethnic backgrounds, who face overwhelming barriers in 1950’s America has always been a touching commentary on racial injustice. The war between the story's caucasian teenage characters labelled as the "Jets" and the Puerto Rican teens labelled as the "Sharks" has not only always made for great storytelling, but had previously served as a clever metaphor for American society. When the show premiered on Broadway in 1957 it rocked the world with how revolutionary it was – and not just for its storyline.

For legendary Broadway director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story was his ultimate opportunity to infuse the artistry and athleticism of dance with Broadway storytelling. He cast the strongest dancers in the business and created a masterpiece of a show that molded dance with characterization while creating some of the most brilliant stylistic, creative and compelling choreography ever seen. And the show’s stunning, opera-meets-American musical theatre score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, packaged West Side Story up into a timeless gift.

The problems with TUTS' production do not lie with its cast. The performers are all very strong, and Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis are beautiful in the lead roles of Tony and Maria. Montgomery is an excellent singer, but what really makes his performance amazing is his acting. He’s able to truly make his version of Tony his own, and his performance is so sweet and charming, it will melt your heart. Gillis is absolutely stunning to watch and listen to. The way she projects her character’s emotions is so poignant that it’s heartbreaking.

Jennifer Gillis and Matt Montgomery are stunning in the roles of Maria and Tony. Photo credit: Tim Matheson.

Also very strong are Alexandra Lainfiesta as the sassy Anita and Alen Dominguez as the fiery Bernardo. In the ensemble, Shannon Hanbury, Jacq Smith, Damon Jang and Kristian Arciaga rock the house with their fierce display of dance technique and style, combined with fantastic characterization.

The unfulfilling aspects of the production are the efforts of director Sarah Rodgers, choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, costume designer Chris Sinosich and lighting designer Gerald King.

It’s no secret that West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and director Sarah Rodgers has decided to drive this point home by having quotes from Romeo and Juliet spray painted as graffiti across the set. The idea on its own isn’t bad. However, as more graffiti is added throughout the show, it becomes very annoying, especially in the last moments of the show when it pulls focus from the important events happening onstage.

When one of the characters is shot at the end (this really isn’t a spoiler, as most people know the story of West Side Story already), Rodgers has made the bizarre choice of having one of the Jet members spray paint Tony’s chest red, and then have Tony do a weird contemporary dance-like fall to the ground. This of course, drew both laughter and sounds of confusion from the audience, and rightly so. Despite the earnest efforts of Gillis and Montgomery to genuinely portray the last moments of the show with poignancy and affection, the moment was ruined by their director, and I feel sorry for these two talented actors who have to endure this humiliation night after night.

At the end of the first act, two of the characters die. And instead of having the actors get up and walk offstage during the blackout, Rodgers has them lie onstage for the entire intermission, which makes the entire audience feel very sorry for them. When the second act starts, Rodgers has two actors portraying police officers take the bodies away – one at a time. The audience has to sit through all of this happening, and it’s very boring. If Rodgers had the police officers clear the bodies during intermission at least, the audience could have been spared having their time wasted.

The Sharks and the Jets in Theatre Under The Stars' production of West Side Story. Photo credit: Tim Matheson. 

I also felt sorry for the ensemble, which include a number of fantastic dancers, who are subject to Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s choreography - which is even more puzzling than Rodger’s bizarre direction. It seems like Friedenberg forgot to listen to the music she was choreographing to.

For example, the premise of the song Cool is that the Jets try to hold in their frustrations and anger for most of the number, and then finally let it all out near the end. It’s an explosion of emotion that matches the music. However, in Friedenberg’s choreography, there is no explosion in the movement of the dancers. They move slowly and do some floorwork to the aggressive music blaring. There’s no release of frustration, which defeats the purpose of the number.

In the dream ballet sequence, Somewhere, there are many moments where phrases of quick allegro music play, yet the dancers are still. While Friedenberg has contributed some nice ideas, such as incorporating  diversity with the dance couples in Somewhere and adding original group choreography sections to The Dance at the Gym (there's also an all-girl couple in this piece), these ideas aren’t enough to outweigh shortfalls in her choreography. For example, The Dance at the Gym section should be based on the mambo. The ensemble even shout out the word “mambo” and the music is set to a mambo rhythm. Yet there was no mambo choreography to be seen.

When Tony and Maria first see each other at the gym, they are meant to walk towards each other and then dance with each other. Friedenberg has the couple start so far away from each other and walk so slowly that by the time they reach each other, the music is over - so they never end up getting to dance with each other. And then Friendenberg has the entire cast stand on either side of Tony and Maria and do odd undulation movements, which of course pulls focus.

Thankfully, the famous crowd-favourite number, America, is pretty well done and it’s a great showpiece for the female Shark members, especially Jacq Smith who gets to strut her stuff. But for the most part though, what’s frustrating about Friedenberg’s choreography is all the missed opportunities. She lets so many exciting musical phrases slip by as she has the dancers pose or do very little.

The talented cast (the Sharks are shown here), try to strut their stuff, despite being held down by the efforts of their director and choreographer. Photo credit: Tim Matheson.

Another odd choice is that of costume designer Chris Sinosich, who has the girls in The Dance at the Gym section wear converse sneakers and boots, as opposed to character shoes. The choice of footwear takes away from the choreography, especially the partnering, as the footwear doesn’t allow the dancers to showcase their feet and lines.

Gerald King’s lighting design seems to be non-existent. The lighting seems to be almost the same throughout the show. You can never tell when it’s supposed to be night or day, or if the characters are inside or outside. There’s no creativity involved and there’s no change in dynamic. King’s lighting is one step away from having the theatre houselights turned on for the entire show.

The unfortunate icing on the cake to this sad production of West Side Story is that at the end of the show, Rodgers has added (this isn’t part of the actual show) a solo number for cast member Daren Dyhengco. He sings Somewhere in a contemporary style while the rest of the cast stands onstage. It all seems like Rodgers has tried way too hard, but has gone down the wrong path to drive the message of the show home.

The problem with this is that the message of two teenagers of different ethnicities who have to fight against society to be together isn’t really relevant anymore. Very few people who see this production will be able to relate to this – which is a testament to how far we’ve come. In our society, acceptance of diversity has gone far beyond ethnicity, and now same sex couples have the same rights and freedom as everyone else.

The Jets in "The Dance at the Gym" number. Photo credit: Tim Matheson. 

I’m not saying that the world is perfect. The recent uprisings in the U.S. show how much work still needs to be done in achieving equality – but that’s an entirely different subject matter. Black Lives Matter is about overcoming society and authoritative prejudices, not about different ethnicities not being able to be in relationships with each other.

There are places in the world where it’s basically a suicide mission to love someone of another race or religion. But doing a production of West Side Story in Stanley Park isn’t going to drive that message home to those audiences. It seems like Rodgers is barking up the wrong tree. The type of audience who attends musicals at TUTS are not the same folks who kill people who date other ethnicities. And I’m not quite sure Rodgers realizes this.

Here’s the thing – to the musical theatre-going crowd, West Side Story’s message is no longer one that resonates as being current. But audiences can appreciate the beauty of the story and how meaningful its message was for its time. Therefore, it’s very hard to try to incorporate contemporary aspects into West Side Story, as it’s best showcased as a masterpiece for the time and place that it existed in.

There’s something very beautiful about looking back at courageous moments from the past. For example, watching a movie like Milk, which is about the gay rights movement in the 70’s and 80’s is very touching. And that’s what watching West Side Story should be like – looking back at the courage and heart displayed by brave people who came before us, and recognizing how their fighting spirit and humanity can still inspire us in this day and age. Not trying to force feed us the show’s message as if we’re horrible people who have to clean up our act.

Theatre Under The Star's (TUTS) West Side Story runs at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park until August 27. Visit TUTS' website for ticket information.