Monday, April 11, 2011

Through the Opera Glasses - 76 - Jets vs Sharks at Neptune's West Side Story

Day 10 of the A to Z Challenge brings us to J - and today that stands for Jerome Robbins, Jets vs Sharks, and Jim White.

When you're a dance freak like me, there are certain iconic dance moments that just give you shivers.

This Sharks moment is one of them.

The triad of Puerto Rican immigrants refusing to give up their stake in their New York neighborhood is a masculine thing of beauty, portrayed above by National Ballet of Canada dancers in West Side Story Suite, a second version of Robbins' choreography arranged for dance companies.

Here Jerome Robbins rehearses the moment where the three Sharks kick out at their rivals, the Jets, while reaching for the proverbial better life.

They do so in harmony, because their gang gives them strength in numbers in the unwelcoming streets of America.

What Jerome Robbins' staging of this groundbreaking piece of musical theatre did in 1957 was to elevate the dance portion of the musical triumverate. His steps weren't just a part of the story being told - his steps told the story on their own.

Canadian choreographer Jim White has adapted Mr. Robbins' work for Halifax's Neptune stage, ingeniously keeping the signature dance sequences while fitting entire gangs into a limited space.

With every production, I stand in awe of the ways that set designers make Neptune appear to be three times as big. But for West Side Story, the biggest challenge is the choreography - and Jim White has pulled off a minor miracle.

To see what I mean, try to imagine the following piece (from the 1961 film version) in an area 33 feet across and 17 feet high. Granted, set designer Geofrey Dinwiddie stretched his options to include the side entry doors bracketing the stage. Climbable scaffolding becomes tennement fire escapes and gives Mr. White extra space to place his dancers.

Oh, how I love that piece. Obviously, my favorite from this favorite of all musicals.

It can be both a joy and a hinderance to watch a performance of something so beloved, because there are certain things you want to see. Settling into my seat at Neptune, I had no idea what to expect - but I should have known they would pull off the seemingly impossible.

The opening 10-minute-long dance Prologue unfolded seamlessly, and when those three Sharks stepped into that side battements my heart thrilled with joy.


Liam Tobin's effortless tenor soared through difficult songs like Maria while delivering the lyrics with the immediacy of dialogue. I definitely enjoyed his confident performance, considering he's only beginning his musical theatre career.


Anwyn Musico handled equally challenging vocals with her fearless soprano. I can't tell you what a joy it was to hear these two sing their duets.


Stephenos Christou led that glorious Sharks moment for which I was waiting, as the leader of the Puerto Rican gang. His charismatic turn along with show standout Dayna Tietzen as Bernardo's girlfriend Anita might have overshadowed the youthful leads if they hadn't hit those notes with such bullseyes.


Dayna Tietzen managed to shine brightest among this large cast of solid performers. Her dancing burned brightly with exceptional technique, while her lovely alto caressed and her portrayal of Anita reached out to connect deeply with her audience.


Galen Johnson's voice was not in the same league as the other two parts of his triple threat, which were exceptional. I definitely enjoyed his nuanced performance as a gang leader struggling to keep the lid on the more excitable members of his crew.


Finally, Dani Jazzar, another third of that special Sharks moment, was a big favorite of mine as Bernardo's lieutenant and Maria's unrequited love. He prowled with fury, giving membership in a gang authenticity, while tugging my heartstrings when he realized Maria was lost to him.

West Side Story runs through May 29th at Neptune Theatre in Halifax.

A few more Jerome Robbins moments on J Day -

I once had the pinch-me-is-this-real moment of watching Jerome Robbins walk past me when I worked at a performing arts theatre in Toronto. His piece The Concert was premiering with The National Ballet of Canada, and he was at our theatre for the event.

I couldn't believe that the legend himself was walking along the aisle right in front of me.

CLICK HERE to listen to Peter Martins speak about how Jerome Robbins' West Side Story literally changed his life - inspiring him to emigrate to the US.

Finally, here's a brief interview of Mr. Robbins as he talks about Fancy Free, where you can see his fondness for using three males dancing in unison to represent a larger culture.


Misha said...

Sounds wonderful! I would love to see the show. :-)

Akelamalu said...

Loved the clips Julia and, of course, your descriptions of what sounds like a fantastic show.

M.J. Fifield said...

I love that moment in West Side Story. When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way...

Bev Pettersen said...

Julia, thanks for such a lovely, detailed review. My parents went to Neptune on Saturday and loved it. And now I feel like I was almost there:)

Jennie Marsland said...

Julia, wasn't that Sharks moment amazing? Loved it! And the choreography was amazing.

Renee Field said...

I so am going to see this. What a great review! I love that story and you made it come to life.

Travis Cody said...

This is also one of my all time favorite musicals. I've always been fascinated by how a person could absorb the entire story by just watching the choreography. West Side Story is one of the few productions that can affect me emotionally through just the music, or just the dance, or just the dialog.

When all three combine, I am transported.

Incidentally, I've always thought that the actor who portrays Riff should always have less of a perfected voice. For me, the rawness and roughness of Riff's vocal is the third part of a triangle that is completed by the purity in the voices of Maria and Tony, and the passion in the voices of Anita and Bernardo.