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West Side Story – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Music: Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Book: Arthur Laurents

Director: Joey McKneely

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

There can be few musicals more iconic than West Side Story. First produced on Broadway in 1957, it is well known for its extended balletic dance sequences choreographed by Jerome Robbins, sublime music from Leonard Bernstein and intelligent lyrics from Stephen Sondheim. And what is truly remarkable is that a musical set so firmly in the mid 1950s sounds vibrant, up-to-date and relevant today. Part of this, of course, is its timeless themes. The most obvious is that of young love, memorably explored in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet over 400 years earlier; but West Side Story also explores the sense of family and belonging that dispossessed young men seek in gangs, as they fear change and incomers. But maybe the most striking theme is that of boys trying to be men, playing with men’s toys when they are simply not emotionally equipped. They posture as they set about challenging each other, marking territory, being threatening, but not understanding that actions inevitably have consequences. The events after the traumatic end to the first act as the gang leaders are stabbed illustrate this admirably. This young cast show the bewilderment felt by children well out of their comfort zone and their helpless wandering, culminating in events again spiralling out of their control. Their sense of disconnection is enhanced by the industrial set from Paul Gallis, revolving to include and exclude, supported by projections of 1950s New York and Peter Halbsgut’s often harsh lighting.

Of the gang members, Tony (Louis Maskell) is the only real grown-up. He has outgrown the street life and the sense of belonging the Jets provided. He is now earning his living at Doc’s. However, Maskell shows how he is still torn when Riff and the Jets call on him to help in the planned rumble with the Sharks, and he comes through. Similarly, when he sees Maria for the first time, Maskell’s reaction and subsequent actions are well drawn. If there is a weakness in Maskell’s performance, it is that his singing can occasionally be a little nasal. Bernstein noted that the dancing in West Side Story is so demanding and requiring such skill that casting for the gang members and their women is always likely to be a compromise. The dancing by the gangs, at once elegant and full of threat, is flawless; it is difficult to convey just how much of a sense of threat can be communicated in this way. Throughout, the acting is heartfelt so one feels the emotions, raw as they are.

At this performance, the regular Maria, Katie Hall, was indisposed and covered by Charlotte Baptie. Baptie plays Maria beautifully as the naïve ingénue, in the throes of first love, clearly believing that love can, indeed, conquer all. Her singing voice is also nothing short of superb, with ‘One Hand, One Heart’ being especially moving. Complementing her innocence perfectly is Djalenga Scott’s Anita. She is rather more worldly wise, under no illusions as to the nature of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks and her boyfriend. But she also shows her propensity to change when she agrees to carry a message for Maria to Tony, despite her feelings of animosity. The subsequent scene, where the Jets in a climate of fear and apprehension, violently prevent her from seeing Tony and then violate her is especially powerful. Scott is one of the absolute stars of this production, showing complex emotions and motivations as Anita makes a decision that proves a turning point in the whole story.

One is in no doubt that the gang members are there for each other and will support each other come what may. And the story is not one of unrelenting gloom. There are light moments, most notably when the Jets cheer themselves up by mocking Officer Krupke in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ – although many might feel the circular nature of the buck passing they suggest is perhaps a little too close to reality for comfort. In this segment, they are lively, believable and entertaining.

So does this new production do justice to the creators’ vision? YES, undoubtedly. This is one show that can be recommended unreservedly.

Photo: Alastair Muir | Runs until 19th April

Music: Leonard Bernstein Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim Book: Arthur Laurents Director: Joey McKneely Reviewer: Selwyn Knight There can be few musicals more iconic than West Side Story. First produced on Broadway in 1957, it is well known for its extended balletic dance sequences choreographed by Jerome Robbins, sublime music from Leonard Bernstein and intelligent lyrics from Stephen Sondheim. And what is truly remarkable is that a musical set so firmly in the mid 1950s sounds vibrant, up-to-date and relevant today. Part of this, of course, is its timeless themes. The most obvious is that of young love, memorably explored in Shakespeare’s…

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.