ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
Directed by Sarah Frankcom
Initially conceived by Jerome Robbins in 1949, WEST SIDE STORY finally arrived on Broadway in 1957. A resounding hit, it was made into a movie in 1961 and has remained an iconic and groundbreaking musical ever since. New versions are in production for Broadway and cinema, but the first big production to makes changes to the choreography and score is this Sarah Frankcom version.
Based on star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, this tale of thwarted love amidst gangland violence and knife crime is as horribly relevant in modern British cities as it was in 1950s Manhattan. It speaks so vividly of young people adapting to their burgeoning independence in a world where they may struggle for acceptance. This tale of gangs is evergreen in that it perfectly depicts the human quest for social identity. We all seek a sense of belonging and to affirm this we adhere to an in group which might be family, social class, a gang or a football team. To increase self esteem we discriminate against the out group, the more prejudice and seperateness then the greater enhancement of self image. The beauty and the tragedy of this has resonated throughout the ages and in every culture. In my teenage years it was Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where boys were knee capped and girls tarred and feathered if they dared to fall in love with someone outside their religion.
The set design by Anna Fleischle is all clean stark lines of white steel and glass, like possible staging for A Clockwork Orange. Although beautiful in a minimalist manner it initially seemed too cold for this tale of passion. There is no context or sense of location which is disconcerting yet highly effective as a potent reminder that this story is ongoing – here in the theatre and outside in every town and city.
This set also works brilliantly with the new choreography by Aletta Collins. She has kept the beauty of the original but adapted it for the round stage and added a fresh athletic element that sees the performers really use the multi levels of the set with cat like grace and agility so there is almost an element of Parkour in the choreography.
Jason Carr has ensured that the music really is the star of this production with an orchestra concealed outside the theatre itself delivering a glorious version of Bernstein’s score. Every note seems flawless and crystal clear as though the orchestra was actually centre stage.
The cast exude the confidence and youthful exuberance of teenagers with a lust for life and a casual disregard for the brutal reality of death until tragedy actually strikes. There are some great vocal performances. Gabriela García as Maria has a pure soaring operatic vocal while Andy Coxon as Tony has a rich warm voice which grows in confidence throughout the show. Gang leader Riff Michael Duke is a powerful dancer but it is his lover Anita, Jocasta Almgill who steals the show. A brilliant singer and dancer, it is also her stage presence which ensures she exudes both passion and compassion.
The central protagonists Coxon and García have do have great chemistry as the lovers torn between two worlds. The love scenes are full of tenderness and the reckless passion of teenage hormones. The rumble scenes and resulting deaths are impactful and exude horror and regret at the wasted young lives. The overall feel of this production is that it is a beautiful and lovingly crafted yet I left feeling curiously flat. Perhaps as Maria says It’s not Us, its everything around us, the knowledge that our young people appear destined to keep repeating the same mistakes in an unyielding world.
Royal Exchange Theatre 6 April – 25 May 2019
Images by Richard Davenport: The other Richard