I first met Tony and Maria in a movie theatre in 1961. After the first twenty minutes of West Side Story, my father dragged us all out of there; he didn’t think real men, particularly the tough kids that populated our neighborhood, danced.
Thank God then for Jerome Robbins, choreographer extraordinare, who knew without a doubt that they did. Stylized but only somewhat for the stage, it looks as if Robbins didn’t so much create the moves, but rather, saw the dance in the everyday motions of street bravado, all angles and power. There are many reasons to see Opera North’s West Side Story at the Lebanon Opera House; the dancing, so convincingly placed on the stage by choreographer Cathy Young and two dozen young dancers from the Boston Conservatory, is but one. It is extraordinary, from the crouching, finger-snapping menace of the Jets and the Sharks, to the fight scenes, and unexpectedly to the well-executed strong and funny Officer Krupke number in the second act.
The music is Leonard Bernstein's, the book by Arthur Laurents, the lyrics by a then budding Stephen Sondheim, who put their heads together over many years to yield the musical that premiered on Broadway in 1957. (A concise history can be found here; the original concept was a story about Catholics and Jews and at one time was called East Side Story, or simply, Romeo.) The story of forbidden love is eternal and oh-so- appealing, and as the current director, Evan Pappas, says in the program notes, “. . . the issue of immigration and who is a true American has never been more prevalent.” The story, well-known and well-loved by West Side Story audiences, at first felt a little shopworn. Is there any point to this seemingly pointless conflict, I had to resist shouting from my seat? I didn’t have to; Laurents must have anticipated the audience impatience and created the character of Doc, (tellingly listed under the category of “adults” in the program) who keeps asking the Sharks and Jets some variation of the question, “Why are you fighting?” He feels both exasperated and powerless, like us watching Ferguson, or Charleston, even as we wonder which city is next, where men make war and women, like Anita and Maria, live with the consequences. Part of the pain of watching such a well-known piece—shocking in its original production—is that we all know what is coming.
In the meantime, though, all that tough stuff is balanced by the sweet ballads: Maria, Tonight, Somewhere. Victor Starsky is possessed of a beautiful and strong voice as Tony. Maria (Candace Matthews) is suitably virginal, coquettish and “pretty” and finally, stricken and forever changed. Like Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno before her, Arianna Rosario as Anita grabs your gaze in every scene she is in, particularly in her dancing with the Shark girls in America.
Have I mentioned the full orchestra? Right there on stage, behind a translucent scrim, tackling Bernstein’s score under the direction of Opera North’s Louis Burkot.
Fans of Opera North may have noticed that in recent years, it has stretched in concept and in physical location. In addition to classic opera, the summer’s productions include notable American musicals like West Side Story. It has also brought opera out into the community, staging events in schools and other Upper Valley venues like the Dartmouth Outing Club and St. Gaudens. The full productions remain at the Lebanon Opera House.
West Side Story will continue its run through mid-August. There are performances on August 1, 4, 8, 11 and 13 at 7:30 P.M. and a matinee on August 5 at 2:00 P.M. If you need a little incentive, listen to West Side Story’s overture here. It will make you want to crouch down, snap your fingers on both hands, and buy a ticket.