Theatre Review


West Side Story
Oxford Playhouse
November 6th-8th 2002

West Side Story is at the peak of its genre; a transmutation of Romeo and Juliet into a damning narrative of the American Dream's failure to meet the needs and dreams of two New York gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a score by Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story has been lodged in the Anglo-American cultural consciousness since its 1957 opening and the subsequent 1961 film release. Its global popularity means a guaranteed sell-out performance, but it also gives Ives and crew a helluva lot to live up to; the slightest slip-up, especially in such well-loved numbers as 'America' and 'I feel pretty', would be immediately noticeable to a savvy audience.

Fortunately, the cast and orchestra aquitted themselves absolutely. The choreography was exciting and original, departing, sometimes radically, from the moves familiar to the film's audience. The set was gritty and utilitarian - scaffolding, iron girders, and wire mesh - and it allowed extended spatial activity on horizontal and vertical planes, whilst representing each Shark and Jet's entrapment and marginalisation within their American society. In fact, Ives is clearly most excited by West Side Story's refusal to demonstrate allegiance to one single gang; like Romeo and Juliet, the musical enforces a "plague on both your houses" fate all round, and Ives is adamant that both gangs are "essentially similar but become set against each other."

But while the musical's social message of essential equality here is admirable, it is manifested visually in a slightly confusing manner in this production: the American Jets are dressed in red and black flamenco-porn wear, whilst the Puerto Rican Sharks sport All-American Levis, suede jackets, cotton-candy pink tops, and denim flamenco skirts. This inversion of stereotyped racial costuming is similarly met with a bias towards brunettes in the Jets and lighter colouring in the Sharks. I assume Ives is attempting here to turn any conservative notions of "American identity" on their head, but, especially in the early full cast dance numbers, individual characters' gang identities easily become confused.

None of this mattered however, because the sheer sound of the production was glorious. Sara Rajeswaran (Anita), famed throughout student drama circles for the magnitude and control of her voice, was typically awesome, and demonstrated probably the best acting skills of the night. Anita's throaty vibrato provided the perfect foil to the clear sound of the innocent Maria (Kari Moffat), and all gang members possessed excellent enunciation, especially audible in the hilarious 'Gee Officer Krupke.' Tony's (James Copp) voice was undeniably pleasant, with excellent projection and a rich depth, but the lack of stage chemistry between himself and Maria disappointed; he was in danger of seeming more in love with his audience than his on-stage partner. But the orchestra! Rhythmically, West Side Story must be one of the most fiendish musicals for an orchestra to perform, and this was the best performance I've heard yet. 'Cool' is the test, of course, with its (almost) impossible syncopation, and it was (almost) flawless. Much respect is due to the musical director and conductor, Kimon Daltas!