West Side Story

Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis Credit: Tim Matheson
Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis
Credit: Tim Matheson

At Theatre Under the Stars (alternating with Disney’s Beauty and The Beast) until August 20, 2016

Posted July 17, 2016

There are a couple of absolute requirements when it comes to producing West Side Story: there must be a fantastic performer in the role of Puerto Rican Anita; and the choreography has to be terrific. This Theatre Under the Stars’ production, directed by Sarah Rodgers, has both. Alexandra Lainfiesta, a Studio 58 grad, is a sizzling Anita; swishing her ruffled skirt side to side and dancing to hot Latin rhythms, she takes what is perhaps the most iconic West Side Story song – “America” – to the moon. And rather than using the original Jerome Robbins 1950s choreography, director Rodgers engaged Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, known for her intelligent, edgy style. In this production, there are three dozen performers to put in motion without bumping into each other. Friedenberg – and the dancers – do it and it’s brilliant.

You can hardly go wrong when the music is by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Rather than the Capulets and the Montagues, the warring ‘families’ are two teenaged street gangs: the Sharks – immigrant Puerto Ricans – and the Jets. And the action is not in Verona, it’s in New York City’s Upper East Side.


The Jets and the Sharks. Credit: Tim Matheson
The Jets.
Credit: Tim Matheson

At a community dance, the Jets’ leader, Riff (Daniel James White), challenges the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (Alen Dominguez), to “a rumble” after the dance. At the dance, however, Bernardo’s sister Maria (Jennifer Gillis) meets Tony (Matt Montgomery), who has been trying to distance himself from the Jets. It’s love at first sight. The fight goes sideways, a young man dies and the tragedy unfolds.

Like the original, it ends badly but reconciliation between the warring factions seems possible. And here’s where Vancouver’s own ‘Divine Sarah’ (Rodgers) does something special. She opens the show with a newly created character, Hopscotch Girl (Aurielle Lindbjerg Strelau on opening night), a little girl with two blond ponytails, all dressed in white. (Lindbjerg Strelau alternates with Aunjali Panju in the role). Hopscotch Girl is frightened off by the teenaged boys but she reappears in the final scene to lift the tragedy out of sadness and despair to send us off into the night with some hope.

Gillis and Montgomery make a fine pair of lovers: young, eager and innocent. Gillis, a soprano, is more ‘operatic’ than most of the singers and, at times, it feels odd. Like Juliet, Maria appears childlike in the first half of the show but matures suddenly when the tragedy unfolds. And, as in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s sudden infatuation seems ridiculous, but boyish Montgomery makes it believable. Neither West Side Story nor Romeo and Juliet work if you don’t suspend your disbelief.

Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis Credit: Tim Matheson
Matt Montgomery and Jennifer Gillis
Credit: Tim Matheson

As Riff, White is nicely physical and pugnacious, cranking the Jets up for the fight.

It’s a pity that Anybodys (Sara Vickruck) doesn’t get a solo because Vickruck can really belt out a song. Her presence on stage is always watchable, nevertheless.

Something that’s disturbingly clear in this production is the girlfriends’ complicity in the violence. Anita says it all: the guys are ‘hot’ after a fight so the girls aren’t going to stop it.

West Side Story is full of memorable songs including “Maria”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere” and “Tonight”, and the orchestra, under the direction of Chris D. King (who steps in as Shrank) makes it all wonderful. Brian Ball (set design) and Gerald King (lighting design) give the show a gritty inner city look.

TUTS is the whole package: popcorn and hot chocolate; warm blankets; hotdogs and salmon burgers; and a great show under the stars. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is probably a better choice for the little kids but West Side Story will leave you singing, “Tonight, Tonight” as you head off into the night.

The Cast. Alexandra Lainfiesta (centre, in purple) Credit: Tim Matheson
The Cast. Alexandra Lainfiesta (centre, in purple)
Credit: Tim Matheson