WEST SIDE STORY AT THE BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE
Theatre Run: Tuesday 01 - Saturday 19 April 2014
Performance Reviewed: Wednesday 02 April 2014 (Gala Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Few musical productions come with as great a repute and standing as West Side Story. With a cavalcade of plaudits and gongs to its name, from Tony’s and Grammy’s through to a staggering 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture (being one of the most awarded movies of all time), to it repeatedly heading up any number of ‘greatest musicals of all time’ lists and polls (including the Number 1 spot in our 2012 countdown of The Greatest Movie Musicals), there is no doubting the prestige, clout and indeed, love, that has become synonymous with the name. As such, any revival or touring production is accepting a heavy mantle of responsibility to do such a fabled piece of musical theatre justice, and it is with a heady swell of both pride and relief that one can safely say that this current touring production of West Side Story, arriving at the Birmingham New Alexandra this week, does a somewhat exceptional job of doing precisely that.
For those select few unfamiliar with its Romeo and Juliet-inspired premise (amend this immediately!), West Side Story depicts star-crossed lovers Tony (Louis Maskell) and Maria (understudy Charlotte Baptie covering for Katie Hall in the performance reviewed) caught between the warfare and hostilities of their respective gangs/families, the Jets and the Sharks. Fair Verona is found here by way of downtown Manhattan, with the rising territorial and racial tensions between the resident Jets and Puerto Rican immigrants the Sharks replacing the Capulet/Montague familial divide of Shakespeare’s original. For all of the obvious inspiration taken from the Bard though, West Side Story is rich which distinctive character and identity of its own, from the Latino styling of the Jets and many of their accompanying numbers, the palpable edge and sense of peril that comes from the downtown/gang warfare dynamic through to the still-earnest sincerity of the central romance between Tony and Maria which is significantly amplified and aided by some of musical theatre’s very finest romantic numbers and ballads.
All of this frisson, feeling and flavouring is gloriously recaptured in the current touring production, which offers an admirable sense of scale and ambition. Make no mistake, this feels like a West End production given wheels, from Paul Gallis’ impressive, revolving set design which makes incredibly resourceful use of space and levels whilst being suitably evocative of downtown Manhattan with its metallic, ceiling-reaching build and Peter Halbsgut’s lighting that leans inventively on shadow, shade and moodier hues of red and blue in particular. It’s encouraging to see a production that fully invests in the darker tone and moments of West Side Story so visually, and yet for the times when the bonhomie and vitality springs forth, such as in ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, the cast, Joey McKneely’s razor-sharp direction and choreography, the still-exquisite score and Renate Schmitzer’s faithful costume design all do a wonderful job of injecting life and vibrancy into proceedings.
As mentioned, Leonard Bernstein’s incomparable music (with lyrics by none other than Stephen Sondheim) remains an absolute pinnacle of the medium. There is practically nothing within musical theatre that can compare to the sheer flights of genius West Side Story’s score takes an audience on, and most shows would give their figurative right arm to get just one of the likes of ‘Maria’, ‘Tonight’, and ‘Somewhere’, to name but a few of the shows many exquisite, simply faultless numbers. One is truly in the pantheon of musical theatre scoring here, and fans of the industry and art form who have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing these numbers live should plan their visit to this production post-haste, for the assembled company do a sterling job in bringing such prolific, seminal numbers to life with utter passion and conviction.
Louis Maskell makes a superb, thoroughly naturalistic Tony, and thankfully delivers some equally impressive vocals given the aforementioned calibre of some of his numbers. The confidence and control with which he segued the finale and crescendo of ‘Maria’ was particularly masterful, and his tone blended well with Maria understudy Charlotte Baptie. Baptie proved to be an exquisite, supremely convincing Maria, with both her voice and performance a captivating, almost oxymoronic mix of strength and delicacy. Djalengo Scott and Javier Cid convey the quintessential Latino fire and charm of Anita and Bernardo with absolute gusto, every time they take to the stage being an attention-commanding delight. Anita and Bernardo are two superb supporting characters, with the superlative Rita Moreno and George Chakiris rightly bagging Oscars for their now-iconic filmic portrayals, and here Scott and Cid give very worthy performances that capture the spirit and vehemence of the roles perfectly.
Amongst the rest of the supporting cast, Jack Wilcox is an intense, commanding yet empathetic Riff, his performance unearthing some of the almost paternal vibes to the direction he gives his fellow Jets, and Matthew Hawksley brings a terrific physicality to Action, brilliantly embodied in the comedic lampooning of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ which proves to be a real Act II highlight.
With an impressive cast bringing to life one of the most cherished and accomplished musicals of all time in a touring production that sacrifices none of the shows inherent theatricality and genius, West Side Story comes as a very easy and emphatic recommendation indeed. It isn’t quite flawless or perfect; the staging for ‘Somewhere’, for instance, being a touch overwrought when the number works far better as a more pared-down, focused duet, and it’s hard not to miss some of the flirtatious back-and-forth of the movies interpretation of ‘America’, which incorporated Bernardo and the male sharks, whereas this stage version has just Anita and her girls (though it is still a wonderful number). These are minor negatives against an overwhelmingly positive whole, though, and possibly mere personal preferences, and do nothing to denigrate the overall attainment and majesty of the show as faithfully recreated here.
Whilst it is easy to allow hyperbole to rear its unwelcome head when reviewing the slew of terrific productions that Midlands and West End theatre have offered of late, even objectively it is difficult to deny the sheer quality and brilliance of West Side Story. It is, quite simply, the best, a veritable masterpiece of musical theatre, and this wonderful touring production wrings out every ounce of passion, excitement and peril and cements itself as an absolute must-see. Inarguably laced with genius, revived with utter conviction and stunning artistry, West Side Story is truly the Midlands theatre event of the Spring - a stunning production of, for what it’s worth, quite probably the greatest Musical of all time.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
+ Faithful, impressive revival of one of the very greatest musicals of all time
+ Bernstein and Sondheim's soundtrack remains unequalled
+ An impressive cast and company doing it all tremendous justice
+ The five leads in particular shine, with a sensational understudy turn by Charlotte Baptie
+ It's West Side Story, stop looking for any more reasons to go!
- Questionable staging of 'Somewhere'
WEST SIDE STORY is running at the BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE from Tuesday 01 April to Saturday 19 April 2014.
CLICK HERE for more information on the show and to book your tickets!
Alternatively telephone the New Alexandra Theatre’s booking line direct on 0844 871 3011.
Press tickets for this performance of West Side Story were provided courtesy of the New Alexandra Theatre directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.