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West Side Story – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Book: Arthur Laurents

Music: Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Choreographer: Joey McKneely (from original choreography by Jerome Robbins)

Director: Joey McKneely

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

What happens when you mix young, testosterone charged youths, with guns, knives, fear, hatred, prejudice, poverty and romantically involved lovers from opposing gangs? All it takes is one tiny spark to light the tinder and the whole scene is set to blaze out of control. Even though we may all know the story and how it ends, Joey McKneely’s production of West Side Story is still full of electrifying moments and tension from beginning to end.

Arthur Laurents’ re-write of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet replaces the ancient family rivalry between the Monatgus and the Capulets with that of The Jets and The Sharks, two rival gangs on New York’s West Side, one white Polish-American working class and the other recently arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico.

The opening scene immediately raises the temperature to boiling point. Groups of Jets and Sharks enter from different sides of the theatre but are instantly engaged in their own balletic turf war over control of the stage. The groups interweave and leap past each other with split second timing. One accidental brush or intimidating glance between any opposing member will be enough to ignite the set itself. The underlying threat of violence running though the entire story is instantly established through this tremendously choreographed opening scene by Joey McKneely (derived from Jerome Robbin’s original). The edgy musical accompaniment (energetically delivered from musical director Ben Van Tiernen and the orchestra) magnifies the tension making the threat almost tangible. All this, and barely a word has yet been spoken.

This young cast produce some outstanding performances, most notably from Louis Maskell, Katie Hall and Djalenga Scott. Maskell as Tony may not have hit all the notes perfectly throughout on this particular evening, but his rendition of ‘Maria’ produced goose bumps and had the auditorium mesmerised. Katie Hall was a perfect Maria, the duets with Tony simultaneously haunting us and tantalising us with hope for the two. Djalenga Scott is atremendous, sassy Anita, high kicking her way throughout the evening. Her powerful voice delivering the prophetic warning of ‘A Boy Like That’ and the comic timing in ‘America’ is faultless.

Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story has been running successfully for over 50 years. There is also an Oscar winning film version and yet this production, while staying close to the original, still manages to be fresh and energetic, funny and chillingly haunting. Paul Gallis’ moody black and white photographs of 60’s New York formed the back drop, The chaotic maze of wooden fire escapes allowed the action to move without major changes to the set and keet the stage open for the big dance routines. The choreography, still based on the original, is undoubtedly the strongest part of the show with an almost balletic quality. The ability of the performers to gracefully hang in the air is gravity defying. The differing dancing styles of each group – the hips of the Latino’s versus the rock ‘n’ roll kicks of the white kids – evocatively magnify the ethnic differences and are a powerfully visceral reminder that the blood of each is close to boiling point.

The sung ensemble pieces are tremendous, in particular the ‘Tonight’ quintet, each group evoking hope, romance, passion, violence and revenge simultaneously. With the mesmerising renditions of ‘Maria’ and ‘Tonight’ and the fun and wit of ‘America,’ the few weaknesses of missed notes can be forgiven in this notoriously difficult production to cast. The faux New York accents are a little less easy to overlook and do grate. But the enduring memory of the evening is of the lights fading out on Tony and Maria’s hopes with a powerful score and the reminder of those goose bumps earlier in the show. Tremendous!

Runs until Sat 9th August 2014 | Photo by Alistair Muir

Book: Arthur Laurents Music: Leonard Bernstein Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim Choreographer: Joey McKneely (from original choreography by Jerome Robbins) Director: Joey McKneely Reviewer: Joan Phillips What happens when you mix young, testosterone charged youths, with guns, knives, fear, hatred, prejudice, poverty and romantically involved lovers from opposing gangs? All it takes is one tiny spark to light the tinder and the whole scene is set to blaze out of control. Even though we may all know the story and how it ends, Joey McKneely’s production of West Side Story is still full of electrifying moments and tension from beginning to end.…

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The Public Reviews Score

Tremendous

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