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.”

RELATED: Art imitating life on stage at CCPA this week

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.

ALSO READ: Dancing in the Right Direction

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.

Live theatre

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alyssa Gerwing, executive director of the Sidney Museum and Archives, gets into the Halloween spirit with a lit-up jack-o-lantern. With Treat Street cancelled, the Sidney Business Improvement Area Society has organized a series of other events and activities under the heading of Halloween Spooktacular. (Wolfgang Depner/News Staff)
Sidney serves up ghoulish spills and thrills during Halloween

A virtual Halloween treasure hunt and scary drive-in movies among tricks and treats

Samantha Lenz, resort manager for Oceanside RV Resort, says she continues to turn people away, who are looking for a permanent spot to winter on the Saanich Peninsula. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Tourism operators hope Canadian Snowbirds flock to B.C.

Provincial tourism industry hopes to compensate ‘monumental financial losses and hardship’

The Capital Regional District is considering adding another dollar a year to the parkland acquisition fund fee for homeowners. (Black Press Media file photo)
One dollar or two? Greater Victoria parks acquisition fee hike spurs debate

$2 a year too steep, CRD committee recommends $1 a year increase per household

Patrol officers from VicPD’s Esquimalt division responded to a call about hateful graffiti in Macaulay Park Wednesday evening. (Black Press Media file photo)
Anti-Semitic, hate-based graffiti found in Esquimalt park

Police seek suspects after fresh hate-based graffiti found Wednesday evening

Vancouver Island-based Wilson’s Transportation has expanded to fill some of the routes left unserviced by Greyhound as of Nov. 1, 2018. (Black Press files)
B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

Like airlines, motor coaches have lost most of their revenue

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books as a sticker on the floor indicates a one-way direction of travel between shelves of books at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
B.C. reports 234 new COVID cases, 1 death of senior who had attended small birthday party

Roughly 5,700 people are isolating due to being exposed to a confirmed case

MNP senior economist Susan Mowbray presents the State of the Island Economic Report on Thursday night to conclude the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s virtual summit. (VIEA image)
Not-so-rosy State of the Island report caps off virtual summit

Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s summit took place online Oct. 27-29

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pa. on Oct. 26. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
POLL: How closely are you following the U.S. presidential election?

It may feel like it’s been going on forever but the U.S.… Continue reading

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

A can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale is shown in Toronto on Thursday Oct. 29, 2020. The maker of Canada Dry Ginger Ale has agreed to pay over $200,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit launched by a B.C. man who alleged he was misled by marketing suggesting the soda had medicinal benefits. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joseph O’Connal
B.C. man’s lawsuit over marketing of Canada Dry ginger ale settled for $200K

Soda’s maker, Canada Dry Mott’s Inc., denied the allegations and any liability

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Hirdeypal Batth, 24, has been charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement in relation to an incident in August 2020. (VPD handout)
Man, 24, charged with sex assault after allegedly posing as Uber driver in Vancouver

Investigators believe there could be more victims outside of the Vancouver area

Pilot Kevin Maher participated in a flyover of a ceremony at the Cobble Hill cenotaph on Oct. 22 in a 1940 North American (Noorduyn) Harvard aircraft. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Cobble Hill remembers lost military members with ceremony, flyover

Annual event commemorates those who died in non-combat roles

Most Read