‘West Side Story’ at the Shaw Festival

Paramount Theater

When a film is so ridiculously popular that it occasionally can’t get screen time, it only makes sense to give it a longer run. “West Side Story” is doing just that, and fans of the iconic Broadway show starring Natalie Wood and Dick Van Dyke will enjoy this glorious three-month salute. At the Paramount, the Shaw Festival’s brilliant young director Frank Catalanotto is at the helm of the excellent, well-cast production, which overlaps with the coming of summer soiree San Marin Fest.

On opening night, the Shaw Festival’s Stephen Ouimette and Aoife Mulvey had the audience in the palm of their hands during Act 1. Yes, it’s a brave choice to extend a production that debuted last month, but it might be one that will have long-lasting value for the company and perhaps for our theaters as well. As a regular entertainment fan, this “West Side Story” reminds me of the classic musical-theater spectacle of Rube Goldberg machines in “West Side Story,” which the Shaw Festival made famous, and which packed downtown venues for years.

That brings us to Catalánotto’s beautiful direction. After a brief introduction that sets up the jocks-versus-tough-guys theme by having the police make an absurd racket, Catalánotto (who runs on stage with handheld torches at the start of scenes) quickly casts us into the lush atmosphere of 1962 New York City. The interconnectivity of space allows this Manhattan carnival to balloon, fizz and burst at any given moment. From the back alley tunnels of “Tony’s Waiting Room” to the vibrant performing arts scene of “America,” Catalánotto and his dazzling cast capture every moment. Among them, a wonderful-looking, lively Mulvey, who plays Maria, is especially dynamic. Her performance is as heart-meltingly warm as it is an exuberant. To her credit, she seems as if she’s floating across the stage.

Also in the mix are Clare Doan, who plays Maria’s boyfriend, Tony, with striking passion and comedy (both Falstaffian and humble). O’Donoghue (as LeFou) is an almost impish presence, and Halie McGregor brings the heart and sophistication of Anita with her eyes closed. No one personifies a role better than Joseph Bomba-Suit, who has the tough-guy title role yet also brings the perfect air of seriousness. The entire cast makes an exemplary version of this story. We realize how iconic the original version was, and that today’s younger audiences of 21-year-olds may be unfamiliar with “West Side Story.” But Catalánotto’s version certainly takes us back to where it began. There’s a reminder here that everyone needs a special someone.

I, too, am glad that Catalánotto’s production found its way back to Ottawa, and that the Shaw’s San Marin Fest is giving it all a boost.

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