West Side Story Commands the Stage

West Side Story Vancouver
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

This past Tuesday, February 4th was the opening night for Troika Entertainment’s West Side Story at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the classic tale following a blossoming but impossible love between two young people from different worlds. It’s the story of the Jets, Upper West Side’s neighbourhood gang, and the Sharks, who just moved into the area from Puerto Rico. Long story short; everyone gets a little testy about territory. Since Tony is a Jet and Maria is promised to a Shark… cue the emotional rollercoaster.

The entire cast was incredible, but the two that stood out to me the most were MaryJoanna Grisso and Michelle Alves, who played the parts of Maria and Anita, respectively.  Both women commanded the stage any time they were on it – each movement deliberate and each note struck with such power and poise that the Queen Elizabeth sighed with relief just to hear them sing.

Grisso is touring with West Side Story for its second season now, but it’s hard to believe she’s done it before. I don’t mean that she was operating on beginner’s luck or that her performance had a novice quality – far from it, in fact. Her portrayal of Maria was so heart-wrenchingly believable that it didn’t make sense to me that she could ever have performed it before. It seems almost absurd that a person could display such an authentic emotional investment – so authentic that Grisso was still crying after the last scene when the cast came out for their bows.

Possibly my favourite part of the entire performance was when Maria had her first solo dance number, which was slow and hypnotic against a translucent, cool blue backdrop. I was completely spellbound, all breaths held out of fear that Maria might stop dancing. Which, abruptly, she did. I must have blinked at the wrong time and missed the half-second transition where the entire cast crept onto the dark stage for the gymnasium dance scene. Where previously there had been Maria alone and locked into a rhythmic hypnosis, there were now the jivin’ bodies of both gangs in full. From breathtaking serenity, to the bright orange glow of gym dance swing, in the space of a breath – I laughed out loud when the change happened because it was so seamless yet so surprising. I guess what it comes down to is, they got me, fair and square.

Alves was a powerhouse in her own right, with the audience wrapped around her little finger as she helped Maria through love, betrayal, and heartbreak. Anita faces her own share of problems as well – not the least of which being the death of her boyfriend and gang-leader (no spoiler alerts here, if you don’t know this story you may want to consider leaving the cave).

If I had to critique something about this performance, it would only be that the chemistry between Tony and Maria was somewhat lacking. Their caresses were a little awkward and forced; Maria kept stroking Tony’s arm and Tony would squeeze her hand in return but it didn’t scream love to me. But where they perhaps didn’t deliver an entirely authentic physical performance in these scenes, they more than made up for with their voices and in just about ever other way possible.

Jarrad Biron Green did an amazing job as Tony, with the kind of voice that makes an audience sigh, laugh, and cry as one being. At one point, as he sung his way off the stage, all the heads in front of me actually tilted and shifted ever so slightly to the side, as though they were trying to follow that voice wherever it may go.

I wish I had the space to write about each individual performer in this play. It has been years since I’ve seen such authority from each and every actor on stage, or seen an audience so influenced every whimsical stimulus. I highly, highly recommend Troika Entertainment’s West Side Story to fans of the original and newcomers alike.