"West Side Story" is one of my favourite shows, and is indeed one of the truly great musicals. But it's not without its challenges. TUTS tackles these well and adds some novel touches, with the result being a satisfying rendition of a classic. I began the evening enjoying the retro gang-slang but waiting to be truly engaged in the heart of the tale; I ended it emotionally overwhelmed by the visceral tragedy.
This "Romeo-and-Juliet"-based tale of the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria has much resonance and relevance today, with its up-front tackling of race relations, the lure of gangs, and the struggle of immigrants. But there are some tricky aspects. While I personally love the aforementioned "street" slang that gives the show much of its character, it can seem corny and dated. I felt in this case, some of the gang members were over-emphasizing it instead of just tossing it off naturally. However, by the time of the deadly serious gang "rumble" at the end of Act 1, such quibbles were forgotten.
Jennifer Gillis and Matt Montgomery were very well-cast in the lead roles, with a genuine chemistry that particularly showed itself in the charming dress-shop scene that leads into One Hand, One Heart. Musically, Maria seemed stronger, though Matt also showed off a very nice if understated falsetto at the finale of a couple of tunes.
The dancing is top-notch, though the needed balance of grace and athleticism was for me a little off, in the too-balletic movements of the gang. Still, the choreography was always engaging, and the ensemble was sharp. And there were lots of wonderful visuals, like the slow-motion movements of the ensemble as Maria and Tony meet at the neighbourhood dance, or an "ascent of man" pose during "Gee, Officer Krupke". A beautiful, white-clad 'ballet' sequence made for a unique change of pace at the start of Act 2.
The simple set design worked well, primarily consisting of two large, metal, scaffold-like pieces that were shifted around constantly and accessorized with key props to transform them into everything from Pop's Drugstore to a tenement balcony.
And the music! I had forgotten just how wonderful this music is - it's just one great song after another, with lyrics that set a high bar for wit, humour and emotion. I kept thinking to myself, "oh yeah, there's THAT one too!" And of course the score, melding jazz, Broadway and Spanish and Latin American musical styles, is utterly engaging. The band under Chris King's expert direction delivered mostly flawless version of this classic score.
One of the pleasures of a TUTS show is the magic that can happen as the sun goes down. For the first act, we're watching actors on a stage in the brightly lit outdoors, but by the second act, the stage glows like a jewel in the darkness and the magic of theatre truly takes hold. In Act 2, you could really appreciate all the light, shadow and colour.
The aforementioned novel touches go beyond the addition of the Act 2 "ballet" - they are evident from the start, wiht gang members spray-painting fragments of Shakespearean prose on the stage walls, and a little girl running on and off stage as the Jets appear. She returns at the end, to great symbolic effect. And there is a final, post-finale musical moment which may divide true musical-theatre fans. Personally, I loved it - I felt it acknowledged West Side Story's musical life beyond the confines of the Broadway stage. (It also gave me a few extra precious moments to wallow in my tears!)
So all in all, TUTS again presents a solid night of great musical theatre that will leave you satisfied, humming the tunes, and possibly dabbing your eyes. Highly recommended!