Review | West Side Story, Royal Exchange Theatre ⋆⋆⋆⋆

The current production of West Side Story staged at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is spell-binding. This timeless piece has been inventively revived by Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom and showcases musical theatre at its finest.

West Side Story is one of those classic musicals that most people have heard a few of the songs without seeing the show itself. The score with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim contains well-loved tunes such as ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’, ‘Maria’ and ‘Tonight’.

Created in 1957, it was written as a contemporary musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet where the conflict lies between two gangs in New York City rather than two rival families in Verona.

On the one side, we meet the American Jets, a gang of proud working class boys, angered by the increasing presence of immigrants. On the other side, we have the Puerto Rican Sharks, equally proud yet angered by their daily confrontations with racial prejudice. The tensions between the two polarised communities though set almost 60 years ago has a tone and familiarity which you could easily seek out in corners of society today.

Despite the fierce resentment between the two groups, we see an over-powering and unlikely love story emerge between Tony (Andy Coxon), a dissenting Jet and Maria (Gabriela Garcia), the sister of Bernando, who is leader of the Sharks.

West Side Story is a firm musical theatre classic for its powerful story and brilliant score. The revival honours this piece and despite a smaller than usual cast and minimal staging in an in-the-round theatre; you are enveloped in this world as soon as the Overture starts. Although most people will know how the story ends, it doesn’t make the harrowing final scene any less devastating.

The youthful and athletic cast bring a refreshing vibrancy to the show. There was an undeniable chemistry between our leads played by the angelic Gabriela Garcia and charming Andy Coxon. Despite the short passage of time, you are convinced of their unwavering love for one another in the difficult circumstances that they find themselves in. Another standout performance was delivered by Jocasta Almgill whose portrayal of Anita is fabulous and fiery.

The highlight of the production is its enchanting choreography by Aletta Collins. ‘A Place for Us’, typically sung as a duet between Tony and Maria, becomes an ensemble piece led by Anybodys, one of the female Jets. The dance is elegant and affecting; the movement effuses this harmony that washes away all the previously built up hate and hysteria in the scene prior. The song becomes much more than the utopia which Maria and Tony dream of escaping to, but the type of society which we aspire to live in.

In the times we’re in, we’re seeing more jukebox musicals and musical adaptations of films. Although I believe there is a place for these, nothing quite beats watching a classic musical done right like this. It’s like inhaling a deep breath of clean and crisp air.

West Side Story is running at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 25 May 2019 at the time of writing.


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