Sunday, 10 August 2014

West Side Story (a review)

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a big fan of musical theatre.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say I'm pretty nerdy about it.  For example, whilst all the kids I work with were singing Let It Go from Disney's Frozen, I was just excitedly telling everyone that Idina Menzel (the voice of Elsa) was the original Maureen in RENT.  

I get my musical theatre geekery from my mum, who pretty much raised me on the classics: The Sound of Music, The King And I, Carousel, Half A Sixpence and of course West Side Story.  So when I read that the new touring version of West Side Story conveniently landed in Plymouth just a few days after my mum's birthday, it seemed a pretty easy decision as to what this year's present should be...

For anyone who hasn't seen West Side Story, be it on film or on stage, I'll give you a quick summary. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's show is based loosely on Romeo and Juliet. Essentially, it's the story of two rival gangs - the white American "Jets" and the Peurto Rican "Sharks" - fighting over territory in New York City.  A guy named Tony, who's trying to step away from his time in the Jets, meets and falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks' gang-leader.  As the two groups struggle for supremacy, the young couple vow to find a place where they can be together safely.  I won't say too much more than that, because... Well, spoilers. 

Of course, you hear the word "gang" and pretty much the last thing you imagine is musical theatre, which does make for some unintentional hilariousness.  The Jets and the Sharks might be squabbling violently, but they do it rather beautifully.  If real-life gangs spent their time angrily pirouetting at each other and clicking their fingers menacingly, whilst singing insults, they'd be a lot less scary, that's all I'm saying...


There were two teenagers in the row behind my mum and me in the theatre and one of them said in the interval: "I'm not being funny, but if you brought members of a real gang to see this, they'd think you were taking the piss and they'd probably kill you."  Not going to lie, that overheard gem was a highlight of my night.

All jokes aside, however, the dancing in this production was breathtaking.  The cast put on such an incredible show that it was hard not to get utterly lost in the movement of the whole thing.  From the opening gang scenes, where dance was employed as a show of power and strength, to the beautiful balletic routine during Somewhere in the second half, the dancing alone was worth the ticket price.  Joey Mckneely's choreography was just brilliant.

The visual spectacle was aided by the impressive use of lighting on stage, plus images of New York City, projected onto the back screen.  The set was simple enough, but was used to brilliant effect and to be honest, you don't need massive sets when the action on stage is this good.  In fact, the starkness of the set design at some points (particularly the end) was really powerful, as it tied in with the starkness of the situations the characters were facing.  The lack of "in-your-face" set design means the audience can focus entirely on what's happening on stage and I always think that's better, especially in a show with such dark and emotive themes as West Side Story, which covers everything from gang violence to racism and yet still manages to have uplifting moments.

The actors were perfectly cast, too.  Katie Hall was wonderful as Maria - sweet, innocent and yet passionate with it.  Her voice is astounding and she portrayed Maria's heartbreak beautifully.  Louis Maskell was a brilliant Tony; strong, yet sensitive and with a voice you could bathe in.  What is it about guys who sing?!  WHAT MAGIC DO THEY POSSESS?!  Aaanyway...

I'm just saying if a guy serenaded me, I'd be putty in his hands, that's all...

As a kid, watching the film version, I was always a fan of the feisty Anita and Djalenga Scott brought her to life with passion and fire. Her sense of fun was evident immediately, which made her later scenes, when she portrayed such hurt and anger, all the more affecting.  Anita's big moment in the show is the well-known and well-loved song and dance number America and sure enough, it was a highlight of this production.  The singing, the dancing and the acting were all absolutely spot on and one of my only disappointments was that it wasn't done again as an encore, because it was just too good to see only once!

It's really hard to find fault with this touring version of West Side Story.  It's one of my favourite musicals and this production certainly didn't disappoint.  The gangs were angry, the dancing was outstanding, the singing was fantastic and there were some laughs to be had before the inevitable tears (and yes, I cried; try to look surprised).

The show is still on tour and I really can't recommend it highly enough.  If you get a chance to see it, go, go, go!

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