November 19, 2009
Oxford Playhouse, 18 November 2009West Side Story is a musical you can admit to liking without losing your street cred; unlike, say, Mary Poppins. It is unquestionably one of the coolest in its genre, or as the Jets would say, “it’s hip”. Few people need reminding that the plot mirrors that of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; with two rival gangs, the aforementioned Jets and the Sharks, replacing the Montagues and Capulets and the story being transposed to 1950s "New Yawk".
Alarmingly, the guns, gangs and gore elements of the musical remain relevant today, though perhaps today’s inner city London is more like yesterday’s urban New York. However, moving away from politics, West Side Story is first and foremost a whopping masterpiece of a musical, jam-packed with songs that have over the years become part of our cultural consciousness. And, to my relief, the University of Oxford student company Up in Arms does a sterling job of delivering each well-loved number with panache – albeit sometimes a somewhat rustic panache.
Against a backdrop of scaffolding and moody lighting, the show opens with what I think was a musical interlude – a medley perhaps. But don’t let this put you off! The production quickly gathers pace and improves exponentially as it continues.
Maria – our ‘Juliet’ – played by Emma Pearce is convincingly portrayed as a dainty yet powerful character. Her love interest, Tony – our ‘Romeo’ – is similarly sweet and this engenders a somewhat childlike appeal. Amongst the gangs and the hard-mouthed Puerto Rican Sharks their doomed romance become palpably precious. In contrast, the gobby Shark girls are played with a delightful gusto and their rendition of ‘America’ is as cocky and commanding as you could hope for. Shark girl Anita, played by Genevieve Dawson, stood out as being the real star; she has an exceptional stage presence that in many scenes lifted the show out of the ‘student theatre’ sphere and into that of a professional production.
The Jets came into their own when they performed ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, expertly bringing together dance, comedy, singing and that special kind of clowning around that only young men can do. It was an audience favourite, and again gave the production a buoyancy that I had feared would be absent after sitting through the lacklustre opening orchestral medley.
I saw West Side Story on its opening night, amongst a young and animated audience, which is sadly not often the demographic found nestled in the seats of the Playhouse. So, not only was it a treat to be so masterfully entertained, but it was exceptionally cheering to see a timeless love story be so enthusiastically performed and enjoyed by such a young, hip crowd.