Theater review: Breathtaking dancing, timeless score lift 'West Side Story'

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 13 2017 05:28 PM

The exuberant "Dance at the Gym" number of "West Side Story." Handout photo by Johan Persson

MANILA — Despite some awkward moments in Act 2 and a technical problem that halted the performance for a couple of minutes in Act 1, the touring production of “West Side Story” still merited a standing ovation during its gala night last Friday, August 11, at The Theater at Solaire.

Sixty years since the musical made its Broadway debut, this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with the warring families replaced by rival gangs in 1950s New York, remains as relevant as ever, considering the current debate over immigration in the US and the increasing reports of racial violence around the world.

This new production, directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, who previously worked with Jerome Robbins, who conceptualized, directed and choreographed “West Side Story,” was also given a high gloss look, giving this classic a contemporary flavor to appeal to an entirely new generation of theater audiences.

While there have been several local productions of “West Side Story” — the most recent one in 2008 starred Christian Bautista and Karylle as the star-crossed young lovers Tony and Maria, who both watched the gala performance along with Gian Magdangal who played Tony’s friend Riff— not to mention the popular 1961 movie version that won 10 Oscars, this touring production makes even diehard theater fans feel as if they are watching it for the first time.

Much of the success of this production lies on the breathtaking dancing from the triple-threat cast. Dancing is front and center in “West Side Story” and finally Filipinos get to fully experience Robbins’ groundbreaking ballet-based choreography updated with some lyrical touches by McKneely.

Right from the get go in the “Prologue” which introduces the rival gangs Jets and Sharks through dance, “West Side Story” immediately makes its case on why it is regarded as "the world’s greatest dance musical.”

"America" is one of the famous songs from "West Side Story." Handout photo by Johan Persson

And the dance numbers kept coming — the frenetic “Dance at the Gym,” the iconic yet simple movements when Tony and Maria first saw each other, the energetic “America,” and the jazz stylings of “Cool.” Key plot points in the story from the rumble to a gang rape were also staged in dance. 

But perhaps the centerpiece is the “Somewhere” ballet in Act 2, which was actually a dream sequence when Tony and Maria meet after the rumble ended in tragedy. There were some unexpected laughter at the pitiable reaction of Maria (Jenna Burns) as she confronted Tony (Kevin Hack) but this was immediately forgotten when the ethereal ballet started. With the entire cast in all white, the dance captured the refreshingly modern look that this production was aiming for. 

The rather simple set consisted of several multi-storey, fire exits that have become synonymous with the show, while projections of black and white photographs of New York certainly gave this production a stylized and contemporary feel.

Kevin Hack as Tony and Jenna Burns as Maria sing "One Hand, One Heart" from "West Side Story." Handout photo by Johan Persson

Apart from the dancing, this “West Side Story” also reminded audiences of Leonard Bernstein’s amazing score that included elements of classical music, jazz and mambo with timeless ballads to boot. In particular, Hack’s rendition of the Broadway staple “Maria” was hands-down one of the most impressive performances of this song ever. Showing perfect vocal control and dynamics, Hack was ideally cast, giving the love-struck Tony just the right amount of danger and arrogance befitting a young man who was formerly a gang leader. This song alone was worth the standing ovation.

Unfortunately, there seemed to have been some lost timing — or a blocking mistake — in the crucial finale that almost ruined the show. Good thing that by that time “West Side Story” had already delivered many strong numbers that the audience will take home with them and remember with profound amazement.

“West Side Story” will be playing for a limited three-week season until August 27 at The Theater at Solaire.