There has been a vogue for importing international musical productions to Taiwan over the past couple of years. There was the The Phantom of the Opera at the National Theater (國家戲劇院), Broadway musical Rent at the International Convention Center (國際會議中心) and French production Notre-Dame de Paris at the Taipei Arena (台北巨蛋) earlier this year, all with runs longer than what is normal for local productions.
Some have welcomed this situation with enthusiasm, believing the first-class productions will bring Taiwan audiences up to an international level, whereas some have voiced disapproval, saying the foreign productions will smother the healthy growth of local theater.
Debates and questions aside, the trend is still in full flood with the arrival of West Side Story, one of the most enduring of Broadway musicals, which will take over the stage of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (國父紀念館) starting next Wednesday and will run through the end of the month with 15 performances. The show reprises many all-time favorites such as I Feel Pretty, America, Maria and Tonight. The modern adaptation of Romeo and Julia brings that immortal tragedy to New York's West Side of the 1950s: The rival factions are two urban gangs: the Jets, comprising second generation American youths with Polish roots led by Riff, and the Sharks, whose members are young Puerto Ricans.
First staged at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy, in 2000, this new production of West Side Story has multiple Tony Award nominee Joey McKneely as the director and choreographer. An authentic version of Jerome Robbins' creation, the show has enjoyed a long run in Europe and now turns to Asia, with stops in Singapore, Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo this year.
McKneely is one of the privileged three directors who are authorized by the Robbins Rights Trust to stage the modern musical classic in the original version as conceived by its creators. The American choreographer combines his expertise with that of his fellow theater professionals in an international cooperation which brings together the European talents of set designer Paul Gallis, costume designer Renate Schmitzer, lighting designer Peter Halbsgut and US-based conductor and composer Donald Chen, who has conducted more than a thousand productions of West Side Story. With around 60 crew members and actors accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra, the gigantic joint project has one ultimate goal in its mind: to recapture the dynamics and energy of the original show.
The original production premiered in Winter Garden Theater in New York in 1957, and is said to be an incomparable landmark in American theatrical history. Its creators, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sohdhiem have long been regarded as pioneers of the American musical.
Fast-forward almost 50 years and the spirit of the original is still alive and kicking as the troupe of performers strut, preen, and menace with exuberant vigor in exhilarating dances. The powerful presences of the lead actors such as Josh Young who plays Tony bewilder audience members with the high-soaring renditions of the well-loved numbers.
However, all the glee and excitement culminates with the solemn plea made by Maria over Tony's dead body for the gangs to end their warfare.