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Friday, October 28, 2011

A review of West Side Story

Here's a review of West Side Story from Michael Cox, editor of the Coastline Journal. Included in the review are some sketches from the renowned and gifted artist Val Nelson. This is truly a new perspective on the production!

Val's drawings are unique: they're done at the dark in the theatre. Here are some notes from Val on her technique:

I wanted to see if I could do some drawings of the production. Since you can’t see what you are doing while sitting in the dark, there is little opportunity to self-edit, and no choice but to be free to make marks, constantly obliterating the actions that have just been carried out, without preciousness. The resulting drawings are records of movement through space and time.

Read more about the drawings here.

West Side Story: Timeless Classic           
by Michael Cox

When you're a Jet,
You're a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin' day.

First of all, is it an opera or musical theatre? And does it matter? We’d only seen the 1961 Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise film version of on DVD; as the cast began the first number, one could imagine being in that theatre in New York in 1957, how shocking it must have been to have onstage what was happening in the gritty urban streets only blocks from the theatre. It wasn’t hard to imagine: internecine gang turf fights, now with guns instead of knives, but just as deadly, was in the news in Metro Vancouver the night we went to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. 

The set had a bold angled wall hanging downstage, upstage were movable brick walls plastered with torn posters and graffiti, and windows which were used to great effect during the balcony scenes between Tony and Maria, where mobile stairs were rotated by performers below, as each climbed toward the other, much like a camera’s circular dolly shot.

Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something's coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something's coming, I don't know what it is,

Tony sings, and we know what’s coming, and it is good, and then it is tragic. I had remarked to my partner, as we milled with the nattering classes in the lobby, that it was a measure of the resonance this story has that audiences had not tired of it in over four centuries. Shakespeare based his play, published in various forms between 1609 and 1623, on
The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, written in 1562. Doug Tuck, in his always popular pre-show talk, noted that West Side Story had been staged in over 40,000 productions, over 300,000 performances, from school auditoriums to Broadway and London, but unlike many, if not most, of these re-mounts, Vancouver Opera's production has the original choreography, as it was first designed by Robbins. 

We knew the music, we knew the story, we knew Tony and Maria would die, but still, it brought tears (the man sitting next to me wasn’t the only one who removed his glasses to dab at his eyes), as Maria sings, to her friends gathered in her bedroom,
I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me tonight.

The first act is lively, funny, exciting; we were impressed by the dancing, there wasn’t a false move by any of the energetic cast; a notable standout was Scott Augustine as Riff, who got it spot-on, one of those “triple-threat” perfomers (singer, dancer, actor). 

My partner sketched the scene as the girls taunted “the craziest girl on the block,” fetchingly performed by Lucia Cesaroni, who captures the star-cross’d innocence of young Maria with a thousand-watt smile.
Val Nelson. Blind contour drawing. Pen & paper. 8.5 x 11 in.

One night, that’s all Maria will have with Tony, played with ardour by the handsome tenor Colin Ainsworth. A young man trying to break free of gang life, to go straight, make something of himself, the gang’s putative leader, Riff, reels Tony in for a rumble—“We’re gonna have us a ball,” he says, but all Tony’s mind and heart are elsewhere:
Tonight, tonight,
Won't be just any night,
Tonight there will be no morning star.
Tonight, tonight, I'll see my love tonight.
And for us, stars will stop where they are.

Val Nelson. Blind contour drawing. Pen & paper. 8.5 x 11 in.

The second act, shorter than the first, is less successful, in part because there is no happy ending in store—no great surprise—neither the Sharks nor the Jets are going to have their way, the rumble turns deadly, Tony runs, and Anita sings to an unbelieving Maria:
A boy who kills cannot love,
A boy who kills has no heart. 

Val Nelson. Blind contour drawing. Pen & paper. 8.5 x 11 in.

Maria, holds her dead lover, who only hours before had sung with her,
Hold my hand and I'll take you there,
/ Somehow…”; for her, there is no future without him.

Shakespeare wrote these lines for Romeo, but Maria must be thinking similar sad thoughts as Tony’s blood stains her wedding dress:

Eyes, look your last.
Arms, take your last embrace, and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death
Romeo and Juliet, Act 5 Scene 3

- Michael Cox

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