Coming Out Swinging: The SCPA Takes on West Side Story

The American Jets, led by Riff (Matthew Hall), are ready to rumble in West Side Story. Photo Credit: Citrus Photography.

The American Jets, led by Riff (Matthew Hall, front), are ready to rumble in West Side Story. Photo Credit: Citrus Photography.

The latest production by the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, West Side Story impresses with its musical score and social themes that are as relevant today as they were when the musical was first produced in 1957. Even with its great choreography and sound, however, this production of the classic Broadway musical leaves much to be desired when the music stops.

Based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story trades the Capulets and Montagues of fair Verona with warring street gangs fighting over territory in New York’s Upper West Side.

Set in the 1950s, the American Jets, led by Riff (Matthew Hall), and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernando (Rufi O. Rodriguez), plan to hold one last, decisive fight between the two teenage gangs. Riff calls on a reluctant Tony (Ahad Mir) to come support the guys one last time. Tony agrees to help. Although, the situation becomes complicated when Tony meets and falls in love with Maria (Jocelyn Francescut), Bernando’s sister, at the school dance. When he sets out to stop the rumble at Maria’s request, Tony soon becomes more involved than he ever wanted to be.

Dispersed across the theatre audience are five actors who open the show with the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet. The ‘Greek Chorus’ returns again, this time in black clothing, to close the first act, then the second with the Epilogue. It is a largely unnecessary addition to the musical considering this is not Romeo and Juliet. It may have been inspired by the Bard’s play, yes, but it is its own story that speaks to a whole different set of issues like immigration, racism, and at-risk street youth. Not to mention that the actors speak their lines out of sync with the others.

While visually appealing, the colorful graffiti designs painted across the set are not period-appropriate. The graffiti is reminiscent of what came out of the hip-hop culture explosion of the 1980s. As such, it sits oddly against the very 50s feel and setting of the musical.

Melissa Monteros and Wojciech Mochniej’s choreography is brilliant. The “Dance at the Gym” and “America” numbers see a lot of flair and excitement. The movement during the rumble and other fight scenes is sharp. There is certainly an edge to Monteros and Mochniej’s choreography. And thankfully, the students, alumni members, and community members involved in the production are up to task and dance wonderfully. (Although, not without some near collisions along the way).

Leonard Bernstein’s memorable musical score is beautifully interpreted by Maestro Wendy J. Freeman and her orchestra. The orchestra plays superbly, giving us a very full, expressive sound.

Unfortunately, in between musical numbers, the show runs a bit flat due to some uninspiring performances. Besides stand outs like Hall and Kayla Mackenzie who plays the fiery Anita, the remaining cast, for the most part, is lackluster. It is not until the second act that the ensemble seems to truly connect with the piece.

Francescut gives an astounding vocal performance. Her voice is powerful, easily capable of filling the theatre, and simply beautiful in its clarity. It is too bad then that Mir’s own vocal performance never quite rises to the same level as his scene partner.

Overall, the SCPA’s production of West Side Story is a strong effort. Audiences will find much to enjoy here, despite some areas that are lacking.

 The University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts’ production of West Side Story runs from Jan 8 – 15, 2014, at the University Theatre.

For more information about the show, visit:

West Side Story
Based on a Conception of Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Staging a Classic: U of C’s SCPA Brings West Side Story to Calgary

Something’s coming.

This week, the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts will be presenting the hit Broadway musical West Side Story.

For Colleen Whidden, the artistic director of U of C’s Music Theatre company, the decision that West Side Story should be the SCPA’s first show was an easy one to make.

“It’s West Side Story! Classic story…amazing music, every song…and from a dance point of view, it’s so dance intensive,” said Whidden. “There’s just so much area in the music for amazing creativity in the dance.”

“When we were bringing together the dance, drama, and music departments we said what would be a great first show for us to do together. It was sort of a no-brainer that [West Side Story should be it] because every department could really flourish, could really shine through this particular musical.”

Based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story stages the heated gang rivalry between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in New York’s Upper West Side during the 1950s. Caught between the conflict are two young lovers whose relationship is threatened by the hatred and violence that surrounds them.

And despite the almost 60 year gap between this production and when the musical was first produced in 1957, Whidden believes that the story and its themes have not lost any of their relevance over the years.

“Even in 2015 now, we still can relate to it,” said Whidden. “Is it a story we don’t see anymore? No. We see it everyday. We probably just read about it in the paper…we see it in our own community, across our country and abroad. Maybe even more now we need to hear that story of resolution of coming together and bringing…divisive parties together.”

Tony (Ahad Mir) and Maria (Jocelyn Francescut) in West Side Story. Photo Credit: Citrus Photography.

Tony (Ahad Mir) and Maria (Jocelyn Francescut). Photo Credit: Citrus Photography.

This spirit of coming together is also reflected in the collaborative nature of the production which Whidden says has benefited the students, alumni, and community members involved.

“We’re coming together as the School of Creative and Performing Arts…with four of us from the drama, music, and dance departments each of us [can] bring our strengths.”

This has made West Side Story a great learning experience for both Ahad Mir and Jocelyn Francescut who play the lead characters Tony and Maria, respectively.

Mir, a fourth year U of C drama student, praises the collaboration, saying that he feels it has fostered plenty of opportunities to learn from his peers in the dance and music departments, and vice versa.

Likewise, Francescut, a music graduate from the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, says she has learned a lot through working with other disciplines in what she calls her first acting role ever.

“This has been a huge challenge for me since I haven’t done a lot of acting [but] I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the process,” said Francescut. “Sometimes it’s been hard, but it’s been so rewarding.”

Delivering such a well-rounded experience means that the level of what is expected of students in the future will only go up, Whidden says. She is confident, however, that students will meet, if not exceed, those expectations.

The University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts’ production of West Side Story opens Thursday, January 8th at the University Theatre.

Performance Schedule:

Jan. 8 – 10, 13 – 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11 at 2 p.m.
Jan. 14 at 12 p.m.

Tickets are $20 for Adults and $15 for Students/Seniors. Tickets can be purchased on-line ( or at the door.

For more information about the show, visit: