Take Romeo and Juliet and throw them into the violent, gang-ridden New York city streets of the 1950s and you have West Side Story. Oh, and throw a few songs in there while you’re at it. For the next two weeks, the McGill Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society is putting their own spin on the romance and tragedy of these timeless star-crossed lovers.
AUTS is an organization dedicated to putting on shows by students, for students. The team is made up entirely of undergraduates, most of whom are just amateur aficionados, not theatre students. Keeping this in mind, the production was impressive.
The story follows the unlikely and forbidden romance between Tony and Maria. He is the leader of the New York street gang, the Jets. She is the sister of the leader of the rival gang of Puerto Rican immigrants, the Sharks. The narrative plays out like Romeo and Juliet, but with more firepower, jean jackets and a lot more dancing.
Concordia student Piper Ainsworth took centre stage as Maria, the modern Puerto Rican incarnation of Juliet. The role calls for a mix of passion and demureness that can be tricky to pull off, and Ainsworth definitely favoured the latter characteristic in her portrayal. She played Maria’s naïveté to a tee, but when it came to the scenes of heart-wrenching emotion, her performance was a little lacklustre. All was forgiven however, every time she opened her mouth to belt out another of the all too catchy songs. With a powerfully operatic voice, Ainsworth commanded the audience with every impossibly high note she nailed.
McGill student Christopher Stevens-Brown plays Tony, Maria’s Romeo and leader of her family’s rival gang. His musical talent was equally standout, and the range in his singing carried his character from moments of intimacy with Maria to desperation in the face of senseless violence.
However, it was Vanessa Drusnitzer, who played Maria’s confidante Anita, who stole the show. Her emotive acting allowed her to command the play’s more dramatic moments, and the passion that came in her singing only enhanced an already powerful voice. Of the whole cast, she was the most believable in her role, down to the details of the Puerto Rican accent she put on — kudos to Drusnitzer for being the only one to fully pull that off.
The live orchestra, conducted by Sean Mayes, was by far the most professional aspect of the production. The difficulty of playing live against the foreground of actors singing and dancing is a challenge that the team executed flawlessly. The instrumental music added a dimension to the show that would have been lacking with pre-recorded music, and the talent of everyone in the orchestra really shone.
West Side Story is a notoriously difficult musical to put on, mainly due to the strength it needs not only in acting and singing, but also in choreography. Considering this was an amateur production, the dancing was good and the actors were fairly in sync in their movement. Although the fighting scenes between the Jets and Sharks might have been executed with more brutish movements, the ideas still came through and the story was not lost.
Overall, the production quality was a notch above a high school play, but the musical talent of the cast and orchestra was its saving grace. If you’re a fan of the story, it’s worth seeing, and worth supporting the efforts of the students who took on this ambitious project.
Tickets are $15 for students and $20 for adults. The show will be running on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from Jan. 31 until Feb. 2 at Moyse Hall, in the McGill Arts Building.