Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Matthew Hawksworth
Reviewer: John Kennedy
Everything was possible in Bernsteins’s late 50s Atomic-Age ‘America’ where inter-racial antagonism imploded with incendiary, teenage trouser-powered cool, hormonal-hip braggadocio to a Romeo and Juliet riff. ‘Is that a GAT in your cod-piece buddy – or are you just frightened to see me?’ Plus ça change, Mr Trump.
Later, Robert Wise’s febrile, flickering neon midnight asphalt-jungle set 1961 film adaptation was about set the bar even higher – much, much higher.
Now come hot-charged lethal Summer 2019 cities – with enough knife-crime contexts to keep an allegorical-driven teenage thespian troupe bristling with ideas. How then, do these gadfly, opportunistic Birmingham Hippodrome Youths, flying by the seat of their very smarty teenage pants, address that Robert Wise challenge? Limbo under that bar or, with vaulting ambition – o’erleap themselves?
The latter indeed – very much indeed. No mitigations, no reservations, no prisoners taken. Theirs is a slick, stylistic scruff of the neck kick-ass attitude of street-strut confidence oozing with ridiculous panache. Damn it – the star-crossed doomed lover, lead man, Alex Cook as Tony, only just got his GCSE results last week!
Kamilla Fernandes embraces the character of wide-eyed, virginal Maria and her effervescent optimism for life in the New World. Her feral, brooding brother, ‘Shark’ pack-leader, Bernardo – bristles with badly anger-mismanaged menace – a role Gibsa Bah was born for. It is a cynical given that the New World order is about to collide with patriarchal, racial shibboleths.
The bedroom tableau for I Feel Pretty, a deliciously intimate affair, further celebrates Al Parkinson/David Howe’s design and lighting – industrial girders seduced by Edward Hopper pastel shade and nuanced, Nicolas Poussin textured composition.
Faithful to script/score and what could be choreographically credible, given the ludicrously tight production schedule, this production is damnably accomplished. Even more, what a shame that Groundlings in the Stalls couldn’t enjoy viewing conductor, Paul Murphy, and ‘Band’ concealed in the pits. Their urban-prowl beat, melodic brio and scalpel-ear sharp timing nevertheless gave the young ensemble an incredible generosity of space and support. These, amongst so many of the other creatives, provide an effervescent crucible of gluttonous opportunities for the nascent cast to immerse themselves in Matt Hawkworth’s sass and savvy patois street-punk direction and promiscuous, Carnaval Latino explosive choreography.
Even more so, what marks this timeless, bitter-sweet teenage rumble in the asphalt-jungle production, is its proactive stereotype busting of body-image orthodoxy. That actors/dancers, by casting default prerogative, must measure up and conform to the preconceived mentality of cat-walk, ‘thin-wins’ identity-parade of body-mass index acceptability. Audition/Casting creatives take good note.
1968 saw Keith Emerson of The Nice, celebrate their bastard-child instrumental ‘protest’ cover of West Side Story’s self-congratulatory America by setting fire to the Stars and Stripes at the Albert Hall. Bernstein went ballistic. Hard to believe now though that he wouldn’t be mightily pleased to see these young fire-starters carrying a similar torch. Hi-hat snare and finger-snappy cool-timed incredible, all these young dudes ought to make the future tremble – it will need it.
Runs Until 31 August 2019 | Image: Simon Hadley