West Side Story is the show to see should you want to marvel at young musical theatre performers working their hardest, an orchestra playing their best and an iconic choreography executed with impeccable confidence.
Set in 1950s Manhattan, the tenement housing estates are portrayed by two structures to either side of the stage conveying several storeys of fire escape stairs, which look quintessentially New York. In the wrong light these did sometimes end up looking a bit more like a tall collage of spray-painted wooden bedposts, headboards and banisters, but with the right lighting they were precarious, rattling steel platforms and railings. The black and white projections displayed on a backdrop behind didn't quite fit with the rest of the look. Partly, the grayscale colours jarred with the fiery, rusty, saturated world of the Sharks and Jets, but we also just don’t really need any more visual aids to build the picture – it’s all about the music and choreography.
The choreography is immaculate and articulates so much of the action – conflict, status, competition, sexuality, fragility, utopia; everything is asserted through dance. Perhaps the choreography’s enduringness is thanks to its impressive expressiveness; it’s not just dance moves put to beats and words but it is proper storytelling and a masterwork in itself.
Tony and Maria are both well cast as a pair of pint-sized, innocuous goody-two-shoes, unfortunate and disastrous victims of their surroundings. Tony’s voice was so rich and powerful that even his spoken lines were surprisingly sonorous and Maria had equally pristine vocals. As for the supporting cast, Anita pulled off being both sassy and maternal and Riff was a persuasive and charming leader, but Bernardo lowered the bar a bit with his only characterisation being that he breathed very heavily a lot of the time, and managed to squeeze into trousers even tighter than the rest of his extremely camp band of brothers. Action seemed a prominent character in this production, possibly because amongst the group of smooth, buff men in tight vests he actually managed to add some loutish laddishness, which made the threatening masculinity of the gangs a tad more believable.
West Side Story is a major part of musical theatre history and it’s had such impact and influence that it’s now quite familiar to modern day audiences. However, this production has nothing insipid about it, it’s just a proper classic done to the highest standard. You don’t need to modernise or give an edge to the out-dated slang; those little glass coke bottles and gym hall dances are retro now and should be kept as they are.
It isn't really all that often that a quality, professional West Side Story comes to town and you really get your money’s worth of sky-high kicks, unbelievably high notes and high-tension drama in this production.