BWW Reviews: McGill's WEST SIDE STORY is Definitely 'Cool'

By: Jan. 25, 2013

When West Side Story opened in 1957 it was nothing the world had ever seen before. This was partly because of the heavy themes it deals with, namely racial prejudice and gang violence, but mainly because it gracefully blends dance into the telling of the story.

Directed by student Rebecca Pearl, the McGill Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society brings to life this timeless tale of star-crossed lovers in a world where they cannot exist as one another's.

With the music written by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in what was his Broadway-debut, the show is a modern-day take on the classic Romeo and Juliet. Set in late 1950s New York, two rival gangs, The Jets and the Sharks, compete for turf. The gangs are tested when Jet-member Tony (Christopher Stevens-Brown) falls in love with Maria (Piper Ainsworth), the younger sister of Bernardo, who is the head of the Sharks.

The innocence and naivety of Maria were well portrayed by Ainsworth. In the beginning Maria is uncorrupted by the racial prejudice she is surrounded by. Her dramatic climax which ultimately ends the show was well-executed with believable emotion. Ainsworth's crystal soprano vocals mixed well with Stevens-Brown's classical voice. Playing Tony, Stevens-Brown's well-trained voice breathed life into the classic West Side Story songs.

However, it was Vanessa Drusnitzer playing Bernardo's lover Anita, who really shone. Her sass and impeccable-timing gave the show the comedic-element it needs. Her strong, brassy vocals were full of raw emotion and were a pleasure to listen to as they shone in numbers such as 'America' and 'A Boy Like That'.

Ryan Kligman also gave a compelling performance as Jets-leader Riff. His charismatic movements and rough New York accent were spot-on even when singing. His love for his friends and gang were also excellently communicated to the audience. Josh Thon also gave a stand-out performance as the adorable, nervous Baby John, shining in such numbers as 'Gee, Officer Krupke'.

The choreography has not changed since it was crafted by the original director Jerome Robbins. With this challenging task the cast executed the dance numbers effectively and with the suitable intensity for numbers such as 'Prologue' and 'The Rumble'.

The few sound and lyric problems did not slow the show down. The set and lighting design done by Galen Macdonald and Michèle Robinson is innovative and effective. A large sheer cloth that is stretched the entire length of the background produces a lighting effect that gives the stage an ethereal feel. The simple set perfectly mimics a grungy alley in New York and the different levels were used to their full advantage.

The McGill cast of West Side Story breathed energy into this endearing tale of hopefulness and love that can be appreciated by all.

WEST SIDE STORY plays at Moyse Hall Theatre at McGill University from Jan. 24-26 and Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for students and $20 for adults. For more information, click here.

Photo credit: Meghan Pearson


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