Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Were Dancap and Mirvish the Jets and the Sharks?

West Side Story is sexy, violent and a little bit gay

West Side Story runs until June 3.
A peculiar thing about the gangs in West Side Story is that they have no business plan. The Jets and the Sharks seek to acquire territory for its own sake; nothing in the show suggests they are involved in drug trafficking, the sex trade or any other activity for which the possession of turf might provide a tangible benefit. They have no particular capitalistic ambitions, and I suppose that’s part of the point. Everything they do is at best symbolic, a jousting of respective egos.
 
In the Toronto theatre scene, we have Mirvish and Dancap. The latter emerged in 2007 to challenge the monopoly that the former had maintained since 1998, when previous rival Livent collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. The battle for territory was waged almost immediately and became messy very quickly.  But Mirvish brought a knife to a fistfight and succeeded in exiling Dancap to the theatrical margins: North York’s Toronto Centre for the Arts, the too-large Four Seasons Centre, and a horribly unsuccessful experiment with the Danforth Music Hall. There’s a correlation between the location of a venue and the profitability of the shows mounted there, of course, but as with the Jets and the Sharks, it never seemed to be chiefly about money. 
 
After all, Dancap inadvertently became something of a charitable venture. The Globe speculates that founder and president Aubrey Dan ending up sinking $40 million into it. Like opening a nightclub or a restaurant for the first time, there was an element of vanity, in addition to a genuine desire to offer the public some fabulous new experiences. But pride, confidence and capital can take you only so far, even when mixed with good intentions.
 
Dancap opened its third last Toronto production at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (TCA) on May 9: the Toronto stop of the first national tour of the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story. It runs until June 3; after that, it’s just Beauty and the Beast at the Four Seasons Centre and Million Dollar Quartet at the TCA in July. There will be no 2012/13 season of shows.
 
When this version of WSS opened in New York, it had two specific hooks: one was that it was directed by Arthur Laurents, who’d penned the original book; he even invented a new character for the show, a child named Kiddo. The other was that certain songs and pieces of dialogue were performed in Spanish, with translations by In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
 
Laurents was 91 at the time and passed away a couple of years later. On the tour, his direction is recreated by collaborator David Saint. (Similarly, Jerome Robbins’s choreography from the 1957 original has been reproduced here by that of Joel McKneely.) The main effect of Laurents’s direction is that the sexy stuff is more sexy, the violent stuff is more violent, and the Puerto Rican stuff is more Puerto Rican. Although the proportion of Spanish was scaled back a few months into the Broadway run, “about 12 percent of the spoken and/or sung words of this West Side Story are in Spanish and 88 percent are in English,” according to a statement from the show. “The tour employs the exact same script as the current Broadway production.”
 
That’s not precisely accurate, given the New York run wrapped up more than a year ago. But also because Kiddo — a “pint-sized Jets wannabe” who sings “Somewhere” — has been eliminated from this version, presumably due to the burdensome nature of bringing a child or two along on tour. Instead, “Somewhere” is given to Anybodys to sing.
 
Anybodys is a minor character in West Side Story, the girl who wants to be a Jet. But with her androgyny emphasized in this depiction, little doubt is left with regard to her suggested sexuality. And, rather than being relegated to her traditional functions as comic relief and Act II plot device, Anybodys emerges as one of the show’s more fascinating figures; as played by Canadian Alexandra Frohlinger, she is given a chance to develop and grow, and her arc is genuinely touching. I don’t recall WSS ever having been so sympathetic toward her.  
 
So the choice to give her the song “Somewhere” (“There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us,” etc) is more than a little heavy-handed. It does, however, serve as a helpful reminder that the show’s original four creators — director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book-writer Laurents — were all gay (and Jewish, for that matter). And you begin to wonder what else, if anything, they were trying to say.
 
 
When I catch up to Aubrey Dan after the opening-night performance, I expect to find him with mixed emotions. It was a successful opening, but also one of the last he is going to oversee.
 
Instead, he’s strangely upbeat and unaccountably optimistic, rejecting the notion that this inches us closer to the culmination of Dancap. “Oh no, what I am doing is we’ve got some great shows for this year, but New York is going through a cycle. So we get the shows from New York, and we get the shows from the West End,” he says. “And unless they’re great shows, I’m not going to bring them . . . This audience here demands really high quality.”
 
I resist the urge to ask him how his upcoming non-Equity production of Beauty and the Beast figures into this calculus and instead inquire whether this means he plans to restart Dancap in the near future.
 
“I did it five years ago from nothing, right, so why not? . . . I’m not goin’ away. But there may be a time period when shows will come and shows will go. Right now, [there are] several shows in New York that have to survive the Tonys.” He lists Leap of Faith, A Streetcar Named Desire and Ghost: The Musical — three critically lambasted productions in which he happened to be an investor.  
 
It appears unlikely he’ll ever see his money back; Dan’s motivation, it seems, is bigger than that.
 
So were he and Mirvish like the Jets and the Sharks?
 

“See my outfit?” Dan asks, as he pulls back his jacket to reveal a bright purple shirt, the colour worn by the Puerto Ricans in the show. “The Sharks.” 

The Deets:
West Side Story
Runs until Sun, June 3
Toronto Centre for the Arts
5040 Yonge St
dancaptickets.com