|Photo from Concertus Manila Production's FB Page|
A month ago, Concertus Productions brought the ever so iconic dance musical "West Side Story" to the swanky Solaire Theatre. With this production following the enormous success of "Newsies" by Nineworks Theatrical there was quite a pumped up anticipation leading to the show. That plus the fact that it is particularly famous because of its exquisite choreography, I was really waiting impatiently for opening weekend. I watched this production twice, the first being their opening weekend and the second nearing its closing date. However, I decided to post this blog entry late because I didn't want to appear negative towards the show most people were raving about. If there is anything I would not want to do ever, it is to antagonize artists or discourage people from watching theater. I am after all a theater fan, theater geek, advocate of the arts etc. In the end it wasn't as if there was nothing to be enjoyed. There will always be something to love in live theater.
|Photo by Johann Persson|
The original staging was directed and choreographed by the modern man of theater during the fifties, Mr. Jerome Robbins. The book was written by Arthur Laurents and the music was created by Leonard Bernstein. West Side story was a musical that was regarded as a bold irreverent message that challenged the inhumane norm of discrimination and hate of that time. Mirroring Shakespeare's tragedy they told the love story of Tony (an American) and Maria (a Puertorican) who were caught in the middle of a power struggle in a mixed neighborhood in New York City. It was a strike on inter-racial warfare. A nod to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it tells the story of the rivalry of the Jets and Sharks that led to blood on the streets.
The Real Tragedy
The real tragedy in this production is the dancing. While most will rave about the cast performance, I found it quite disappointing. It's not about technique as it is about performance value. Jerome Robbins is a choreographer who made a name for integrating movement to the story and his characters. He developed characters by assigning them stylized movement that is carried throughout as a defining mark. From an emotion comes a snap and then a step and then a leap with not much fuss or preparation. Every movement should be emerging naturally in stride in their pedestrian actions. In his productions dancing becomes as natural as walking. With his vocabulary largely based on ballet, this actually means that his cast must be able to do every thing with so much ease. For Robbins, movement is not just an accent or a decorative display, it is storytelling. This was not the case in the Manila showing. Generally, the steps were just steps.
I remember reading somewhere that synchronization of the respective groups were critical because it reflected the allegiance of the two groups to each other. Both groups were supposed to be distinctly solid but UNIQUE units. With that in mind I found the differentiation between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks weak. The Jets were casual and playful and the Sharks were smooth and suave as actors but in their unison dancing they all looked the same to me.
The choreographed fight scenes lacked tenacity and looked more like a pas de deux (dance of two) of sorts. Everything was calculated and nothing looked like a struggle. In the staging of "America" the beautiful senoritas danced musically but not with abandon. In dance, flavor is everything.It was again a very clean but lackluster performance of an epic dance. I waited for the legs to kick with power and length and for the jumps to fly.
I could not relate the dance performances to the organic approach typically found in Robbins theatrical pieces.
The Lack of Anguish
The racial under currents were not really evident making it seem like petty fights in the playground. This diminishes the mounting of the deaths in the story. In this musical, so many characters die. But it seems like deaths can easily be digested nowadays. The lack of anguish in all the death scenes were very disturbing. At one point Maria played by Jenna Burns squeaked "Killer! Killer!" to her loved one Tony who just killed her brother. Hitting his chest she proceeded with a tantrum-like thread of words. In the scene where she defends herself to Anita she doesn't breakdown on the floor she gracefully and carefully slid from the bed to the floor fidgeting as if they were talking about a high school break up. Yes there was sadness but there was no torment. When Tony played by Kevin Hack died, he tried to sing "Somewhere" in an almost comical way that the scene lost its momentum. Collectively this was not quite the tragedy I was expecting.
While I missed the turmoil, I was delighted with the comedy. Memorable to me was the energetic "Officer Krupke" where the sharks made excuses for their bad behavior. All the characters contributed to a highly enjoyable roast of juvenile delinquency. Every joke was lovingly answered with joyful laughter. In the same manner "I Feel Pretty" number was cute as can be.
One of the biggest scenes in the musical is the all white ballet. This ballet ended beautifully with everyone singing like angels. A full cast singing "Somewhere" gave me goosebumps. The serenity of the scene and the soft quality of the voices gave me the healing touch theater gives the heart.
One of the highlights would have to be the staging of "Tonight". It was a recreation of the balcony scene in the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The music was soothing to the soul. It ended beautifully with the sets moving apart almost signalling their inevitable separation. The three dimensional movement definitely allowed me to zoom in on the scene much like an emphasized movie ending.
Individually, each cast member had their fair share of shining moments. Anita played by Keely Beirne was sassy and memorable. Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Bernardo was perfect for the part, smooth and dangerous. Kevin Hack as Tony serenaded the audience convincingly. He was very endearing. Jenna Burns was wonderfully charming and comical.
Keeping up with Traditions
After having conversed with theater and non theater friends about the production I realized that what bothered me was not the lack of talent or technique but the weak tribute to the material. I have a natural preference to keep a good balance of tradition, intention and artistic freedom. It was my familiarity of the material that held me back from having an unadulterated appreciation of the musical. I watched it a second time with an open mind and I found beautiful moments in this musical. In the end despite everything, it was still a night of enjoyable theater. I do hope I get to see more stagings of this dance musical in the future.