Tuesday, April 12, 2011

99 problems with west side story

i've been on a jay z kick lately, devouring his fascinating book Decoded and thrilling off the sharp rhymes, brilliant lyric play and irresistible music from albums like the black album and the blueprint 3. walking into neptune's production of West Side Story fresh with jay z's empire state of mind and his compelling stories from the gang streets of modern new york was perhaps not fair for the 1950's musical.

my review for Halifax Magazine is below: 


When you’re a Jet
You’re a Jet all the way,
From your first pirouette
To your last trip to the ballet
OK, those aren’t exactly the lyrics that kicked off West Side Story at its Neptune Theatredebut Friday night, but given the amount of spinning, sliding and leaping going on during the dance routines, it might have been a truer account. It was hard to imagine any of those good-boys-gone-gooder lighting a cigarette, let alone risking an early death.

Liam Tobin, Anthony MacPherson, Adam Sergison and friends combine to form the softest gang to ever menace the streets of New York. These boys seem closer to their childhood cribs than any hoodlum’s crib. It’s hard to imagine them holding a stare, let along an inner city block, and it’s never clear why they’re so hyped to fight off rivals to their turf. In the words of another celebrated New York gangster, Jay Z, you know the type: loud as a motorbike, but wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight.

As the musical opens, they’re bristling to bash with a worthy rival, which prepares us for the muscly, menacing, mean Sharks. Stephenos Christou and his boys make for legit gangsters, and when they square off with the Jets, it’s a battle between boys vs. men. Puzzlingly, two of the Sharks–regularly mocked by Jets and cops as dark-skinned Puerto Ricans–are white. One is wearing a tweed jacket. It’s not clear if this is a progressive, multi-cultural gang or if there just weren’t enough non-white actors auditioning for the roles.

Christou is great as the reluctant warrior, an immigrant once dazzled by the bright lights, now soured on the Big Apple. He doesn’t want to fight with the little Jets–they look more like hang gliders, to be frank–but he is forced to by their belligerence as they buzz around him.

Things come to a boil when Jet legend Tony (Tobin) locks eyes on Shark sweetheart Maria (Anwyn Musico) and the two lock lips at the dance. They are perfect strangers and apart from both being pretty and witty and bright, it’s never revealed why they are so hot and bothered for each other. It’s Romeo and Juliet, but without any of the clever word wooing that Shakespeare used to pull us into his young lovers’ world.

With breathtaking speed, both Shark and Jet jettison familial and friendly ties to risk their lives in a bid to hook up, and soon Sharks and Jets are dancing their way into an early grave.

When the last body was carted off stage and the curtain dropped, it received warm applause, and my musical-loving friend swooned, but I was little moved. I’m sure there’s a place for this play somewhere, but not in my heart or head.
West Side Story plays at Neptune Theatre until May 29.
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