THE BEAT: Here's why West Side Story will appeal to Pinoy audiences

by Yugel Losorata
Aug 21, 2017
West Side Story is being staged at Solaire's The Theatre until August 27, 2017.

For a stage play branded "the world's greatest dance musical," it is actually quite amusing that the song of West Side Story with the most recall is "Somewhere," a sweeping ballad of a piece you'd rather not dance to.

It is also said that the tune has become a gay anthem because of the "there's a place for us" lyrics and that the songwriters, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, are reportedly openly gays.

But with the current Manila staging being, well, "a time and a place for" gay people, and unofficially the hugot lines capital of the world, no doubt "Somewhere" deserves to be that song Filipino audiences will look forward to when they watch West Side Story, now ongoing at Solaire's The Theatre until August 27.

During this classic's new production-performance that had Manila journalists in attendance, everyone hanged on to every note during the very sequence featuring the song. One can sense it was the moment everyone was waiting for, and it was worth the wait. The heartfelt singing of the song and the sad atmosphere created for it made some technical stoppage (during the particular show last August 11) a glitch easily forgettable, or should we say forgivable.

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Without "Somewhere," West Side Story can still stand as a major dance production spectacle. With it, the thing makes it appealing to everyone in love or in the hope of something better. "Hold my hand and we're halfway there," the song says.

This new production, directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, was made to look fresh in the eyes of the present generation or at least to people exposed to modern music and visuals ... to generally good result.

Set amidst the vicious rivalry of teenage gangs in the 1950s New York, West Side Story tells the tale of star-crossed lovers: the all-American boy Tony and the Puerto Rican girl Maria.

They are caught in the bitter battle between the Sharks (composed of Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (comprised of Caucasian New Yorkers).

Once the rival gangs were presented to the audience through some well-orchestrated dance number, you can't help but think that the late Michael Jackson was highly influenced by it that he pursued the idea of street gangs in choreographed motion. Safe to say the music videos for "Beat It" and "Bad" were West Side Story scenes expensively adapted into the short film medium.

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Dance choreography is carefully treated in West Side Story like it is used to push the narrative more effectively than the dialogue can ever do. Talk sounds cheap for the Jets and Sharks once they take the fight through the beauty of dance.

The "Dance at the Gym" number is another prime example of telling the story more through dancing. You end up breathless after seeing it, and it is almost expected that you will join the applauding crowd once the number is done. Clapping your hands is the only way to tell the thespians they're doing a good job so expect applauses every once in a while. When they go white, everything goes bright.

Singing is tight all throughout Acts 1 and 2, especially for the two lead characters played by Kevin Hack (as Tony) and Jenna Burns (as Maria).

But the dancing has always the edge in artistic showcase. So, it shows those behind the production really made sure it honors its reputation as a snappy dance display.

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Then there's the stage set that appears as a complex maze of mechanical work that truly works.

For all the gang and race wars, West Side Story is basically a powerful love tale between a man and a woman, set in 1950s Upper West Side New York, that easily appeals to Filipinos, with its you-and-me-against-the-world theme arching over the plot and its representation of the lovers as two physically attractive individuals whose bond can't be untied by any kinship or race issues.

As a production, it should be watched by both dance enthusiasts and music aficionados, considering the presence of such songs like "A Boy Like That," "America", and of course, "Maria."

As a story, it is relatable to people who love the idea of falling in love and those experiencing it with all the hassles it brings, mainly, family conflicts which is often a problem in a close-knit family bonded society like what's naturally existing in the Philippines.

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Ed's Note: The 'PEP Review' section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.

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West Side Story is being staged at Solaire's The Theatre until August 27, 2017.
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