It really is no wonder that West Side Story is so beloved by audiences. Despite being written almost sixty years ago, this exhilarating contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet is a timeless classic.
With inspiration from the Bard’s greatest romance and the combined talents of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story merges powerful and relevant themes, infectious music and thrilling dancing.
Direct from a sell-out season at Sadler’s Wells, West Side Story has returned to Milton Keynes Theatre for two weeks and the production is a treat from start to tragic finish.
The blossoming romance of two star-crossed lovers unfolds amidst the violence of the rivalry between two teenage street gangs. These young adversaries are embroiled in a turf war in New York’s Upper West Side neighbourhood during the mid-1950s.
The Jets are a Polish-American group (the natives), who are distrustful of immigrants. The Sharks are from Puerto Rico and have come to New York seeking opportunity. Unfortunately, the reality for the Latino Sharks is a constant barrage of daily racist abuse – from the Caucasian Jets and the city’s corrupt police force. These themes have a continued resonance today, as immigration and gangs remain at the top of the political agenda and make the news headlines with frightening regularity.
The feud between the Jets and the Sharks is immediately illustrated in the opening scene. As members of each gang stroll onto the stage the tension is palpable. Never have moments of stillness and silence been infused with such intent. As the gangs begin to taunt each other, words soon descend into fisticuffs and the momentum and movement dynamics build – along with the soaring score.
The partner work between the male dancers is precise but still macho-cool. They have the required laid-back swagger yet every roll, kick and rebound is slickly synchronised. A Jet and a Shark try to pin each other down before the other gang members burst out of the wings. They leapfrog, toss bags of rubbish and generally cause chaos. These hoodlums clearly loathe each other.
The love-struck couple willing to cross the battle lines to be together are Tony (a reluctant Jet) and Maria (the sister of Bernardo, who is the leader of the Sharks).
Camaraderie is pushed to the brink as former gang member Tony is reminded by Riff, the leader of the Jets, that “without a gang you are an orphan”. Riff urges Tony to join the Jets for a fight with the Sharks after that night’s dance.
Meanwhile, innocent Maria – who has just arrived in America to marry Chino, a fellow Puerto Rican – is desperate to have some fun at the dance before becoming a wife.
Maria is portrayed by a familiar face. Katie Hall played Christine in Cameron Mackintosh’s all-new production of The Phantom of the Opera on its national tour (which wowed audiences at Milton Keynes Theatre in 2012).
Katie’s crystal-clear voice effortlessly reaches the very highest notes. The score has operatic heights to it that she handled with ease – and without once wavering from her Puerto Rican accent. Her emotive performance of the exuberant Maria falling head over heels in love, before falling apart with grief, had the audience completely captivated. As Maria’s eyes met Tony’s across the dance floor, I found myself rooting for them – even though we all knew that this ill-fated romance would not have a happy ending.
Louis Maskell, as Tony, perfectly pitched his rendition of the yearning ‘Maria’. Stood alone, under a solitary spotlight, he evoked all the desire and longing of a man besotted with his one true love.
Together, Katie and Louis are magical. Their breathtaking duet ‘Tonight’, sung while suspended above the stage on the fire escape (the musical’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s iconic balcony scene), had the audience spellbound.
Later, when the entire company joined together to combine different melodic lines within the same song, I felt shivers run down my spine.
The much-anticipated dance is meant to be an opportunity for the Jets and the Sharks to set aside their hostility and make peace. Held on neutral territory (at the gym) it provides moments of comedy and includes a wonderful dance-off which contrasts the cultures of the two gangs.
Exotic, fiery Puerto Rican passion is at its most evident in the spirited ‘America’. Barefoot, with their skirts flying, Anita (Djalenga Scott) and the Shark girls generated laughs and awe in equal measure as they vigorously danced through the saucy, sassy, fast-paced routine.
The singing and dancing throughout the show is excellent. This production features all of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and is directed by Joey McKneely, a former assistant to Robbins. The cast deliver the blend of modern ballet, tough urban styles and Latin influences with aplomb.
It is particularly gratifying to see men dancing with such unrestrained athleticism, energy and strength. The Jets click their fingers, strut, leap and slide with convincing attitude. The Sharks are rhythmic and tempestuous as they swing their hips and show off their fancy footwork.
I could easily wax lyrical about all of the unforgettable songs (the touching ‘One Hand, One Heart’, the playful harmonies in ‘I Feel Pretty’, the poignant ‘Somewhere’ and the slapstick ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’), the romance, the comedy, the drama and the tear-jerking ending.
West Side Story is an emotional roller coaster and I cannot fault the performance I enjoyed at Milton Keynes Theatre. It seems the rest of the audience would agree as the cast received a standing ovation during their well-choreographed curtain call. You might need to go prepared with tissues and there is a danger that you will be humming all of the songs for days afterwards, but West Side Story is a must-see!
West Side Story continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 14 June 2014.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.