Heather Burns, musical director; Matthew Howe, director; and Sara-Jeanne Hosie, choreographer, gather around the piano at the Canadian College of Performing Arts. The trio are working with students on the college’s production of West Side Story, which plays April 19-27 at the McPherson Playhouse. (Don Descoteau/Black Press)

Life, career lessons abound in Broadway classic for local students

Canadian College of Performing Arts looks to tell theatre’s West Side Story

Don Descoteau

Black Press

Many stage and screen productions have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

And of all the attempts to reframe the story of star-crossed lovers up against the pressure of gang rivalry and questioned loyalties, West Side Story remains one of the most significant, more than 50 years after Jerome Robbins conceived it, brought it to Broadway and changed the face of musical theatre in North America.

With its complex story of ethnic gang tensions, social inequality and above all, love – on top of its award-winning music, stunning choreography, and set decoration – it’s a tricky theatre project to take on, says Heather Burns, director of education and programming at the Canadian College of Performing Arts.

“It’s a very challenging piece and you have to have all of the right players to make that work, from your creative team, your cast, the orchestra. It’s just really demanding in every corner of it,” says Burns, who is also musical director for the CCPA version of the show, running April 19-27 at the McPherson Playhouse.

For those not familiar with West Side Story, it’s the story of Jets gang member Tony, who falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of bitter rival gang the Sharks, and the intense goings-on around them that make their relationship almost impossible.

It’s the first time CCPA students will perform the full version of this iconic musical theatre piece. While admitting they have their work cut out for them given the subject matter, Burns is confident the current group can do the story, the music and the staging justice.

“They’re quite a strong class, artistically – dancers, singers, actors – and they also bring a sense of cultural diversity to the program that we haven’t seen,” she says, noting the group includes 11 international students. “I felt if we were going to do this piece, this was a company that could bring the talent to the table to be able to execute it.”

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Director Matthew Howe, a CCPA staffer since 2007 who’s taught and directed at various levels around Victoria and the U.S., from high school to community theatre, is also excited about the opportunity to do West Side Story with this talented collection of 58 performers and crew.

He says they have responded well to the rigorous demands put on them and continually ask eloquent questions about how best to honour the story and characters, both of which are very specific to a certain area and ethnic groups.

But Howe resists the urge to pigeonhole the story.

“In some ways it’s a mistake to say West Side Story is about racism, it’s deeper than that,” he says.

Asked to elaborate, he explains. “It’s about how the power of love, in a positive and maybe even a negative way, can make you choose to do things that are wonderful and correct, but can also blind you to what’s going on around you … the power of family, and the whole concept of losing one’s sense of purpose as a person, because of the things that happen around you and what other people are telling you that you need to be.”

There’s great life lessons in here for the students, he adds.

Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who has created original choreography for the show, inspired by Robbins’ original work, says the hope is audiences will also take home lessons from this version of a classic tale.

“[It’s] good to do theatre that hopefully can reflect something back to the audience, that they will do more than just go, ‘oh, what a lovely show,’” she says.

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Howe agrees.

“We said that in rehearsal, that we don’t want them to leave and say, ‘oh it was so nice to hear that again,’ we want them to leave and talk about what the play is about,” he says.

The assistance and guidance from Mercedes Bátiz-Benét from Victoria’s Puente Theatre has been a huge help for making sure the cultural representations are appropriate in the CCPA version of this classic piece of musical theatre, Burns adds.

“I feel like we can do the show with integrity and respect,” she says. “I think we can honour the difficult nature of the show with the talent that we have … the team is strong, the direction is strong, the choreography is strong … I think the audience will see a beautiful end product.”

Tickets are available at the Royal and McPherson box offices, by calling 250-386-6121, or online at rmts.bc.ca. Discount vouchers are available in person at the college, 1701 Elgin Rd.

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