By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Greg Dowler-Coltman sent me a Leonard Bernstein quote this week. “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
“How did he know?” jokes Victoria School’s theatre department maestro. He’s alluding to the epic and combustible plan that — to borrow a lyric from Something’s Coming, the opening number of West Side Story — is “cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose…”
When Tony, the boy who falls in love across a lethal ethnic divide in West Side Story, sings “something’s coming…” he’s not kidding. The something is #starcrossedlovevic. Starting Thursday, the arts high school is poised to produce, simultaneously, West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet: the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway musical and the Shakespeare tragedy that provided it with the tale of star-crossed lovers doomed by gang violence and racial/ethnic hatred.
Vic has staged both shows in the course of its 30-year history as an arts school. As Dowler-Coltman points out, West Side Story was “the first full-scale musical we ever produced.” The Montague and Capulet kids made their Vic debut in 1999.
But both full productions, together? “A year ago we asked ourselves, wouldn’t it be great for the kids to see the resonances between the two?” Dowler-Coltman laughs. “We thought it would be fun! An adventure. We’re always looking for ways for kids to see that risk-taking is part of an artist’s life. It’s a fundamental tenet of who we are as a school.”
In this risky, crazily complicated enterprise, a rarity for audiences too, he and co-director Natalie Witte were egged on by designer Marissa Kochanski, who suggested recycling her set for the 2015 Freewill Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet.
Last October, the horizon-expanding adventure began. Dowler-Coltman enlisted professional mentors with widely different specialties to amplify the double experience for the student company. In the end school logistics meant that only 12 kids were in both shows, but all 80 actors in the two productions were exposed to a Jerome Robbins dance workshop, for example, and Doug Merz’s dialect mentorship. They all studied “Shakespeare off the text” with Amber Lewis; they all learned stage combat with Patrick Howarth.
And they spent a weekend in a master-class with one of the most innovative physical theatre companies in the world. London’s Frantic Assembly did the original creative work translating The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time. Dowler-Coltman contacted the company, and it turned out one of their number, Jess Williams, was in New York preparing the touring production of that hit for the road. In a curious incident of synchronicity in the night time, incidentally, the star of that tour several performances a week is Vic grad Ben Wheelwright.
In the course of rehearsing, Dowler-Coltman, Witte, musical director Bruce Cable, and choreographer Maureen Tigner-Morison pooled their creative ideas. “If risk-taking is part of our bedrock, so is collaboration,” says Dowler-Coltman. “If kids don’t see it in action, it’s just an abstract idea….”
What emerged, in an intriguing reversal, was that the Verona of Shakespeare’s tragedy is the contemporary setting: hand-to-hand violence, knives instead of swords. And West Side Story is the period piece, set 60 years ago when it was originally created, in the mean streets of ‘50s New York.
As the young actors have discovered, the parallels and intersections between the two shows have cumulated in a powerful way. “I watched the West Side Story dress rehearsal Saturday,” says Jordan Melnyk, the Grade 12 student who plays Juliet. “And Maria and Tony singing Tonight! I thought, this is the balcony scene!”
Modern dress makes it “easier for the audience to connect,” she figures. As Juliet Melnyk wears her own ripped skinny jeans in the show, at Dowler-Coltman’s prompting. “You look like you!”
In the musical Melnyk’s assignment is to dance in the dream dance pas de deux, Somewhere, with Tony and Maria looking down. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine them looking down through the centuries, in effect, at their 16th century counterparts.
“Two kids in West Side Story are stage-managing Romeo and Juliet,” reports Dowler-Coltman. Lady Capulet and the Nurse are calling (cues for) West Side Story.” Dowler-Coltman watched the musical’s Tony, Sage Jepson, watching the actor playing Romeo.
“I started to see the parallels between Tony and Romeo,” says Jepson. One gets songs; the other gets gorgeous monologues in verse. The hardest thing about doing two shows, says Jepson, who’s in the gaggle of Romeo’s friends, is “focus…. You have to be always there, 100 per cent, listening, back to the heart of the story.”
#starcrossedlovevic: West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet in rep
Theatre: Victoria School of the Arts
Directed by: Greg Dowler-Coltman and Natalie Witte
Where: Eva O. Howard Theatre, 101St. St. and Kingsway
Running: Thursday through March 22