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A scene from Vancouver Opera's "West Side Story"

Tim Matheson

West Side Story

  • Vancouver Opera
  • Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on Saturday

When Leonard Bernstein put together a cast to record his West Side Story in 1984, he chose opera singers for the leads: Jose Carreras as Tony, Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, and Tatiana Troyanos, as Anita. There was no doubt in his mind that their music at least was operatic. Vancouver Opera's West Side Story follows that lead, and although the singers playing the two star-crossed lovers – Lucia Cesaroni as Maria, and Colin Ainsworth as Tony – aren't the celebrities Te Kanawa and Carreras were, their feet are indisputably in opera.

The CVs of almost everybody else on stage, however, list such shows as Jersey Boys, The Lord of the Rings, or A Chorus Line. They're dancers who sing, or actors who dance, and the territory they stake is the Broadway musical. That makes this edgy production, like the piece itself, a real hybrid, and it accounts for some of the best moments of the show.

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For no matter how beautifully the principals deliver West Side Story's hits – I Feel Pretty, Maria, and Tonight, for instance– it's Jerome Robbins's fabulous choreography and Bernstein's jazzy orchestral score (a little tame in conductor Leslie Dala's hands) that define the show. Take away the squealing trumpets and the stage full of toughs in the air and you risk having little more than an updated and slightly sappy Romeo and Juliet. Get the dances right, which Vancouver Opera does, and West Side Story has an irresistible ebullience.

But this production also communicates the machismo and the menace in those big ensemble dances, and that's no mean feat. Choreographer Tracey Flye, who also directed the original Jerome Robbins choreography for Stratford's 2009 production of West Side Story, moves the dancers with electrifying speed and precision, but they're always in character, too, from the compact, angry energy of Scott Augustine's Riff, the leader of the Jets, to Dani Jazzar's swaggering, muscular Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks. When the switchblades come out, it's scary. And when the blood starts to flow, the vulnerability of these kids is scary, too.

The love story between Maria and Tony seems almost peripheral, despite fine singing. Cesaroni looks and sounds the part of the newly-arrived Maria, innocent and charming, and her voice has attractive dark undertones that give her a hint of otherness. Ainsworth, who resembles a big teenager on stage, is a bit clean-cut in both manner and music (Cesaroni's diction falls into more natural rhythms), but his warm, smooth, easy tenor is undeniably appealing, even with amplification that took away its intimacy. However, that same amplification – one main reason this production could never really be capital-O opera – created some very odd effects when he and Cesaroni sang together in octaves, for it sounded more like a fusion of voices – as in the electronically-fabricated castrato voice heard in the movie Farinelli – than a duet.

Cleopatra Williams, as Bernardo's tough, sassy, sexy girlfriend Anita, was this production's powerhouse. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim gave Anita some of the fastest, wittiest lines in the show in the ensemble number, America. Williams didn't waste them.

But everything that's hot about this show – and lots of it is – happens before intermission. The second act doesn't exactly collapse, but it certainly fizzles, as it earnestly ties up all the loose ends.

Bernstein's music sags, the Jets' post-rumble burlesque of Officer Krupke seemed inappropriately comic rather than satirical, and Ken Cazan's direction, otherwise snappy, suddenly seemed half-hearted and a little sloppy. Blame it on Shakespeare: He finished the story, so Bernstein and company had to too, but the two dead kids on the stage at the end of Act One say it all.

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