West Side Story,
Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
April 23 to May 22, 2016
Featuring the participants of the 2016 Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program

Review by GRAHAM HICKS, www.hicksbiz.com

Eight years ago, The Citadel Theatre and the Banff Centre embarked upon a professional theatre training program for young-ish actors well into their acting careers but taking time out to refresh their skills.

It’s been highly, highly successful, both for the actors and especially for Citadel Theatre audiences. Because after a month of general theatre training in Banff, the 20-or-so actors descend on Edmonton to continue their training within the context of rehearsing and performing a major show as a finale to the current Citadel Theatre’s season.

I couldn’t tell you how the economics work, but the fact is with the Professional Theatre Program, the Citadel has at its disposal some 20 fine young actors, full of vim and vigour and renewed enthusiasm, with the capacity to handle the most demanding of large-cast productions.

The program has brought us such memorable shows as Romeo and Juliet, Arcadia, As You Like It, Three Musketeers, Little Women, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pride and Prejudice, usually as the current season’s final spring production.

This year, it was all about musical theatre, the immortal West Side Story with its mega-cast of New York street gangs and their associates, of songs, music and dance from one of the greatest musicals ever.  Even though the Citadel presented the show just 11 years ago, it will fill most of the seats in the Maclab Stage. It’s a show casual theatre-goers flock to see. 

And, as is almost guaranteed with this show in the hands of the Citadel production team, they won’t be disappointed.

This production is very much an ensemble.  At the end of the night, you are on your feet clapping and cheering, but a half hour later, only a few individual performances -  Eva Tavares as Maria, Pamela Gordon as Anita, Dani Jazzar as Bernando – will stand out in your memory. 

This West Side Story is about the whole – the seamless integration and fluidity between of song, music, dance, all movement, lighting and set. The entire show, not just its famous dance scenes, has a dream-like quality.

The behaviours within the show – not its universal themes – are becoming increasingly quaint. It’s about New York street gangs fighting for turf in 1957.  Somehow I don’t think contemporary gangs of street thugs in 2016 get together beforehand at Doc’s soda shoppe  to clarify the Rules of War,  to decide what weapons are permitted or not.  In the contemporary street culture movies and TV shows, it’s usually suggested they just try to kill each other as efficiently as possible with the most useful weapons available.

But the universal themes of West Side Story - love that transcends cultural barriers and obstacles, an anthem to the idea of instant romantic love between soulmates, betrayal, loyalty – will resonate through the centuries. And its political observations – defense of turf, them versus us, racism, defiance of authority, defiance of established social order – are as relevant as ever. 

On the individual side, the performances of Tavares, Gordon and to a lesser degree, Jazzar, are standouts. 

Eva Tavares is a cracker-jack Maria, pint-sized, full of life and determination. She had both the stage personality and the voice to handle Maria.  Indeed her operatically trained voice was a joy to listen to, so complex and masterful.   

Special kudos to Pamela Gordon, who had the challenge of coming into the show without being a part of the Professional Theatre Program’s bonding beforehand, and who has to be at least a generation older than most of the cast.

Pamela – who played the role 11 years ago at the Citadel – had Anita nailed. The age difference was swept away in the power of her acting, her dancing, her agony, anger and ultimate betrayal of Maria and Tony. When she danced or sang in an ensemble, all eyes were on her.  I suspect director Bob Baker, despite auditioning across the country, simply couldn’t find an actress that could fill the demanding role as well as Edmonton-based Gordon, so he turned to her once again. And once again, she delivered in spades.

Surely part of any such dramatic training program is the paradox mastered by those growing in their careers, that while acting is a me-centred business, the best of shows demand a sacrifice of individualism for the sake of the whole.

It was the ensemble, the team, the admiration for thousands of moving parts both physical and metaphysical which had the opening night audience leaping up for a standing ovation.

You may not remember individual performances from this West Side Story, but you will remember this particular show, as a whole, for a very long time.