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West Side Story, The Palace Theatre: Reviewed

Joan Davies deems the Manhattan love story a timeless musical production.

Written by . Published on December 18th 2013.

West Side Story, The Palace Theatre: Reviewed

THE Palace Theatre has chosen the ever popular West Side Story as its Christmas show this year, adding to the range of non-Yuletide theatre options in Manchester.

It’s hard to believe that this tale of doomed love across a divide of hatred and ignorance is over 50 years old, but it first appeared on the Broadway stage in 1957, the film version taking ten Academy Awards four years later.

Some critics believe that the show is overdue a make-over, a fresh look with new choreography.  That might be interesting as an addition rather than a replacement, because there’s really nothing to fix. 

The reasons for its ongoing success continue to shine in this touring production, through almost perfect casting and performance.  It’s only here till early January so book quickly if you don’t want to miss it.

Jerome Robbins, the show’s original instigator, director and choreographer, had the idea of transposing Shakespeare’s popular Romeo and Juliet to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where in the 1950s gang problems were hitting the press and the courts.   Arthur Laurents wrote the words, Leonard Bernstein the music and a youngish Stephen Sondheim was brought in to write the lyrics.  The current world-touring production is directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, a former assistant to Jerome Robbins, and uses the full original choreography to great effect.

Wss1086West Side Story

The rivalry between two gangs, The Jets, white, either Polish or Italian Americans, and The Sharks, recently arrived from Puerto Rica, is told via scowls, finger clicking, a few insults, but mainly through dance. The love story told through melody and conversation.

Tony, who once led but has now grown out of The Jets, falls in love with Maria, the newly arrived sister of The Sharks leader, yet to understand the impossibility of crossing the barrier.  Louis Maskell is an appealing Tony, filled with confidence and optimism on ‘Something’s Coming’.  Katie Hall is beautifully luminous as Maria, her strong clear singing voice refreshes familiar songs such as I Feel Pretty.  The two voices combine beautifully on duets, Tonight and One Hand, One Heart.  Katie Hall brings an energetic charge to Maria’s lively innocence and underpins it with a hint of a determined streak, making her commitment to Tony believable.

Jack Wilcox as Riff leads The Jets with the slight uncertainty of a new leader, stamping his authority through a clearly sung Cool and strong dance moves.  Javier Cid as Bernardo the sultry leader of The Sharks has considerable stage presence underpinned by ballet training in Madrid and London.

West Side Story America Credit Alistair MuirWest Side Story America Credit Alistair Muir

Djalenga Scott commands the stage as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and lover.  Anita’s role is pivotal; she understands, even enjoys, the rivalry and the rules it lays down, but is sympathetic to the pull of romantic love and its potential for transforming lives. The performance is superb; Djalenga meets all the demands, acting, singing and dancing as if the role were written for her.

Even the comic song, now something of a tradition in modern musicals, and something I often find cringewothy, is delivered with entertaining élan and adds another dimension to the story.  Officer Krupke is a witty and worrying ironic questioning of attempts to understand ‘juvenile delinquents’ and the juvenile’s ability to exploit this. 

What no other musical can match is the male dancing; the opening number and the later ‘rumble’ showcasing the delights of American choreography which exploded from the cultural melting pot of America’s legacy of music and dance.  It’s given full force here and it’s thrilling to see it live.

Bernstein made considerable use of Latin rhythms, orchestrating them into the Mambo dance number and America.  The Puerto Rican women may ‘like to be in A..mer….ri..CA’, but express their commitment underpinned by an African-rooted Latin rhythm. 

Some critics believe the show is overdue a make-over, a fresh look with new choreography.  That might be interesting as an addition rather than a replacement, because there’s really nothing to fix. 

This is a great production of one of the finest musicals ever written.  

West Side Story is at The Palace Theatre until Saturday 4 January 2014

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