Experimentation is what keeps theater fresh. Hopefully that experimentation can bring something new to a work, something which can enhance it and still respect the original. (I saw a RIGOLETTO last season with an ending which took the whole audience’s collective breath away and transformed forever the way I will look at Verdi’s masterpiece.)
I think that’s what the creative team behind Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s new, black & white production of WEST SIDE STORY were hoping to do (at the Strand through Oct. 24th). The highlight of any WEST SIDE STORY production has to be the choreography. After all, Jerome Robbins imagined the musical with dance at its core. Wendy Hall’s rousing choreography for Leonard Bernstein’s gorgeous music carries the Fiddlehead show.
Hall gives the Jets explosive (pow! pop!) leaps and aggressive bounds (with arms stretching backward like Romulan “birds of prey”). The Sharks’ movements are more elegant and plenty erotic, perfectly illustrating the palpable excitement building in the music. Charles Pelz’s twenty piece orchestra (which includes stellar musicians like Jeff Leonard and Louis Toth) fills the cavernous hall with Bernstein’s throbbing melodies. The music alone could tell the whole “star-crossed” story. (Kudos to producer Meg Fofonoff for finding a way to fix the Strand’s old, creaky sound system.)
Alas, I’m very sorry to say that I don’t know what the black and white theme is supposed to represent in Fiddlehead’s pallid version of the Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim musical. The WIZARD OF OZ used B&W for Dorothy’s pre-Oz, humdrum life and color for her spectacular, hallucinated adventure. I get that but in WSS director Stacey Stephens gives us color only for wounds, a yellow rose, and the fantasy ballet in Act II. Steven Spielberg used color once, at the end of SCHINDLER’S LIST. I get the ‘death” symbolism in Spielberg’s movie but I don’t understand Fiddlehead’s metaphor: The real world is pale? Only bloodshed can give it pallor? (And since yellow usually means cowardice—What are we to make of that?)
Stephens directed as well as designed the costumes for his high concept but those B&W frocks cause a whole lot of havoc: When Maria tries on her party dress (which should be white by the way) she complains to Anita that white is for babies and she’ll be “the only one at the dance in a white dress.” NO. Everyone at the dance is in a white dress. The only variety is in shades of grey. (The male characters wear white for the Sharks and black for the Jets. Perhaps Stephens is saying the Sharks are the good guys and the Jets are the bad guys. Old cowboy movies indicated good and evil that way.)
As a result of the lack of color, everyone looks washed out, like some unseen Dracula drained the life blood from the musical. The only passion comes from the glorious music and the vital choreography (which, too, is unfortunately undermined by those colorless costumes and a lack of space. The rear portion of the stage is littered with ladders, chairs, all sorts of detritus which could have been pushed back so that the Jets could snap their fingers and advance more than three steps toward the audience.)
Inconsistencies (where the dialogue does not reflect what is happening in this production) and odd choices undermine the story. (SPOILER ALERT: For example, Maria has to traverse the whole width of the stage to reach Chino after he shoots Tony. Then Chino inexplicably drops to his knees as if to propose marriage. Instead he thrusts the gun toward Maria, head bowed as though he expected to be knighted.) I haven’t a clue.
I guess it’s a clever trick to put Anita in a tub in a balcony loge after she says she’s going home to shower but we can’t hear her that far away and the lustrous quintet has become a quartet without her. What’s more, she can’t be seen by that side of the audience. But pulling off her underpants in the pseudo “rape” scene (which is usually stopped by Tony’s boss long before it goes that far) is just gratuitous and grotesque.
For the most part, the Fiddlehead production lacks a sense of playfulness. The characters dressed in black made me think of mourning clothes way before any of the violence takes place. Thankfully, they do achieve some welcome comic relief in the naughty “Officer Krupke” number.
Many of the performances have that extra something which sets them apart from everyone else: Theo Lencicki as Riff has it. Kim Corbett has charisma as Maria. Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva is a striking, threatening Bernardo. Pamela Turpen is a fiery Anita. Daniel Boudreau stands out as the creepy detective and John Davin makes the drugstore owner a mensch. And I mustn’t forget the dancers. Thank heaven for the dancers.