Concept: Jerome Robbins
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim.
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Nowadays audiences are accustomed to perceiving West Side Story as a classic musical perfect for viewing on Sunday afternoons so it is hard to accept that, when first staged, its depiction of gang violence was controversial. Now the UK has become a racially divided nation with, if the media is to be believed, growing violent crime it seems a good time to take the musical back to its roots.
In late 1950’s New York violence erupts regularly between rival gangs: American-born The Jets (of which Tony (Andy Coxon) is lieutenant) and the Puerto Rican The Sharks led by Bernardo (Fernando Mariano). Tony has become disenchanted with the gangs and is looking for a sense of purpose when he meets and falls in love with Maria (Gabriela Garcia). But as Maria is Bernardo’s sister their love may reconcile the gangs or lead to tragedy.
Sarah Frankcom is not only directing her first musical but is tackling what might be seen as the Mount Everest of the genre. Frankcom offers a vivid, stripped back production in which little is allowed to interfere with, or distract from, the important business of singing and dancing. Anna Fleischle’s design looks like an abstract sketch of a set with bare skeletal structures representing buildings and road markings painted onto the floor. The stage is kept free of clutter to allow the cast maximum freedom of movement. The famous fire escape upon which the lovers meet descends from the roof of the theatre and benches rise from within the street scene. The bare frames of the buildings serve as climbing frames for some athletic dancing.
The intimate atmosphere of The Royal Exchange allows audiences to appreciate the superb script: ‘’You make the world lousy’’; ‘’That’s how we found it’’. Polly Sullivan’s costumes are a subtle way of showing the ‘gang colours’ of the rival delinquents. The Jets are casually dressed in sombre tones while The Sharks wear bright Hawaiian shirts.
Jerome Robbins, who directed the original production, was a choreographer so West Side Story is unusual in that the dancing is just as important as the singing. Aletta Collins faces the daunting prospect of not being able to use Robbins’s original choreography due to the design of the theatre. Appropriately for a show about mixed cultures her choreography is an intoxicating melting pot of styles. The opening, as Leonard Bernstein’s horn-driven overture captures the bustle of a metropolis, is aggressive with the cast striding vigorously across the stage. The initial dance between the lovers is minimalist and gentle. A plaintive version of Somewheredescends into a nightmarish re-creation of a gang fight. The fighting between the gangs is balletic and graceful but the tense atmosphere developed by Frankcom ensures we never forget the danger underneath.
The cast is excellent and not just as dancers and singers. Jocasta Almgill stands out as Anita – proudly adjusting to not having to defer to men and enjoying every minute of life in her new homeland. Fernando Mariano’s Bernardo is a thoroughly nasty piece of work; always willing to attack a helpless opponent or draw a knife on an unarmed man.
Andy Coxon is a great romantic hero with a dreamer’s gaze and an astonishing voice. The show is, however, stolen by Gabriela Garcia’s achingly vulnerable Maria who has a heart-breaking blend of innocence and a hunger for living life to the full.
The Royal Exchange’s West Side Story brings vibrancy and passion to a show that may have been taken for granted. The Exchange finished 2018 on a high note with The Producers and with West Side Story have given audiences the first show of 2019 that demands to be seen.
Runs until 25 May 2019 | Image: The Other Richard.