West Side Story (Lower Ossington Theatre)

west_side_story_by_Shaun_McPhersonThe LOT brings the classic musical love story to the Toronto stage

I had the pleasure of seeing the Lower Ossington Theatre‘s mounting of the classic musical West Side Story tonight. The LOT‘s version was an ambitious, lively take on a story I’d only ever seen on film and in print.

If you’re someone who managed to escape high school without having read the book, its premise is a “modern” (relative to its time) Romeo-and-Juliet tale of doomed love between two people from different — and racially divided — worlds.

The story centres on the rivalry between the “American” gang The Jets and the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. While The Jets are busy throwing around highly offensive racial slurs – and The Sharks are busy embodying fairly offensive racial stereotypes – the two gangs are gunning to run the other out of their tiny piece of “turf.”

Amongst the chaos, Maria (the phenomenally talented Meher Pavri) and Tony (Hugh Ritchie) lock eyes and fall in love. Theirs is a young, foolish, doomed love, which I would have enjoyed seeing explored more. It has been called “The world’s greatest love story,” after all.

The leads’ chemistry almost entirely made up for what I found to be a lack of relationship development. It was easy to believe that they were deeply in love, even though they’d only just met, and shared mere minutes (and a few songs) together.

Maria (Pavri), was one of a few standouts for me and my companion Caryhn. She was well-cast and as beautiful a Maria as one could hope for. Her entire performance — her presence, dancing, and solid acting — was incredible to me, but her strong vocals rose way above the rest of the cast. Sadly, in my opinion she far outshone her lover Tony (Ritchie), who at times was barely audible next to her.

Which raises another issue: while I am eternally grateful for air conditioning on humid, hot days like today, there was a loud hum coming from the rear of the theatre (I’m assuming it was an AC unit) which slightly affected my ability to hear the cast, despite them all having microphones. Most of the talking scenes were audible, but I missed a lot during vocal performances.

And that raises another unfortunate point about the LOT: its seats are rather uncomfortable, and the smaller theatre is quite cramped (especially with a full house like tonight). Sitting through a two hour (plus intermission) show was very uncomfortable for both Caryhn and I.

Other issues: Given that almost half of the cast were supposed to be Puerto Rican, more Brown or Of Colour actors (particularly in the female roles) would have been amazing. I always want to see more diversity regardless of the character’s race or ethnicity (or body type, gender, sexuality, etc.), but it feels especially important when the characters themselves aren’t white. There is no lack of talented performers Of Colour in this city!

Perhaps it was the proximity to the incredible vocal talents of Meher Pavri, but Caryhn wasn’t especially thrilled with the vocal performances of the rest of the cast: “They were OK, but not phenomenal.” I enjoyed them, but I lack a musical background. I did find some of the dance numbers a bit long, and it would have been nice to see what they could have done with more stage space.

Despite their length, we were both very impressed with the dance performances, and with the acting. Aside from the lack of diversity, we both felt the roles were well cast and enjoyed all of the performances.

Other standout performances for me came from Baby Jon (Matthew Eldracher), whose nuanced facial expressions and various mini-roles were charming; Riff (Robbie Fenton) who truly embodied a 50’s era greaser type; and Doc/Gladhand (Richard Dupp) who transitioned seamlessly from nerdy chaperone to sarcastic malt shoppe owner.

And finally, the LOT set designers are total magicians. I’ve seen several shows there and am always blown away by what they do with the limited space they have. They are also masters at set transitions, and instead of trying to discreetly set up scenes, they boldly own it and have fun with it.

Despite my complaints about comfort and noise, I really enjoyed this show. Given the sold-out house, whooping and cheering throughout, and standing ovation at the end, I’m apparently not alone in feeling that way. Can you dig it?


    • West Side Story is playing until September 18, 2016 at the Lower Ossington Theatre (100A Ossington Ave.)
    • Shows run Thursday to Sunday. Please see website for showtimes
    • Ticket prices range from $54.99 – $64.99, and are available online, or through the box office at 416-915-6747
    • This show contains loud noises and use of herbal cigarettes

Photo of Meher Pavri and Hugh Ritchie by Shaun McPherson