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theatre review

A scene from the First National Tour of "West Side Story"

Back in 2009, West Side Story returned to Broadway for the first time in almost two decades. Just a few months later, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival also revived the beloved 1957 musical inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Now, the tour of the New York production is passing through Toronto, while the stars of the Stratford one – Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy – are down in Gotham doing Jesus Christ Superstar. Who says cross-border trade is on the skids?

Having seen both sides of the Story at the time, Stratford's struck me as the strongest. But the New York production – a bilingual one directed by book-writer Arthur Laurents, who died a year ago this month – was no small shakes either.

Revisiting it on tour – the direction is now credited to David Saint – I feel it has slightly diminished. But it scratches the itch one gets every couple of years for this classic American musical.

The story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria is as moving as ever, while Leonard Bernstein's score is still sumptuous, and played beautifully here by a large and local orchestra. (Musical contractor Levon Ichkhanian is doing a fine job living up to the high standard set by his late mentor, Sam Lutfiyya.)

As Tony, Ross Lekites – who looks like a young Matt Damon – may be a little soft around the edges, but he has a lovely voice and good chemistry with Evy Ortiz's sweet and diminutive Maria.

Jerome Robbins's iconic choreography is reproduced with varying quality by Joey McKneely. The dance at the gym is electric, but the opening scene between duelling "American" and "Puerto Rican" gangs the Jets and the Sharks – snapping their fingers at each other, instead of biting their thumbs as in Shakespeare – feels laboured. In Sergio Trujillo's hyperkinetic recreation on Stratford's thrust stage, you believed there was masculine hostility behind the movements; that's only intermittently the case here.

Laurents hired In the Heights's Puerto Rican-American composer Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate the Sharks' dialogue and songs into Spanish for this revival – and that was its unique selling point. The bilingualism has been dialled back a bit, but there are still passages in Spanish. Mercifully, these include much of I Feel Pretty, which Stephen Sondheim has accurately derided as containing some of his most annoying lyrics ever.

The tradaptation ultimately ends up more a gimmick than a new window into the work, however. And if its intent is to make the Sharks less caricatured, it backfires.

To keep the attention of the gringos in the audience, the actors playing the Puerto Ricans pull an awful lot of over-the-top face gestures to communicate their meaning – and they seem to mime sexual congress all the time. One step forward, two steps back. (I can't check the video replay, but I believe much of this cartoonishness has crept in under Saint's watch.)

Of course, the tour's Bernardo (German Santiago) and Anita (Michelle Aravena) aren't the stand-outs in the cast either, with Anita in particular eating her songs, and both looking as if they've been out of the teenage-gang game for a long time.

Stumbles aside, this tour of West Side Story does satisfy, and I couldn't help but tear up in the usual places. A beautiful touch is having the notoriously scabby-kneed tomboy Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger), who wants to be a Jet more than anything, sing Somewhere during the dream ballet. In this simple tune, the characters yearn for a time and place of tolerance to love who you want. That struggle is, of course, still ongoing down in the United States – with one step back, two steps forward this week.

West Side Story runs until June 3.

West Side Story

  • Book by Arthur Laurents
  • Music by Leonard Bernstein
  • Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
  • Directed by David Saint
  • At the Toronto Centre for the Arts
  • 3 stars