There’s a certain breed of musical that manages to strike a chord deeper than just a nice tune and sharp dancing—think Julie Andrews prancing around the Swiss Alps, Harold Hill organising the River City Boys’ Band, and so on. For nearly sixty years, West Side Story has rightfully reigned from its place in this pantheon. Its songs require no introduction, its dancing is renowned, and even to hear its score played by tone-deaf kindergärtners on the kazoo would be satisfying. Doing West Side Story then, becomes less about simply putting on a good show as doing justice to the gold standard that the show has become.
The good news is that they’re doing a good job of it at the moment at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the original production of West Side Story is both what put the show on the map and what has kept it there. Happily, it becomes this production’s strongest suit. The cast masters the unique blend of ballet beautifully, and the visceral, violent qualities of the dance unmistakably have the same message as the tough-guy dialogue and the real violence of the play. Were all street gangs in New York City to conduct most of their battles through tightly choreographed Jerome Robbins dances, we might think them less of a problem. More likely, New Yorkers would pay to go see them.
When they’re not dancing, the cast carries the play well. Special mention must be made of Louis Maskell as Tony, who impresses with a brilliant voice, particularly in ‘Something’s Coming’ and ‘Maria’. When the audience already knows the songs in a show by heart, it can be a heady task to impress them with your rendition. Singing, Maskell manages to convey not just the emotion of the character, but also the fullness of the emotion. Other parts, however, run a little thin or perhaps need to be rethought. Too often the erstwhile Jets make the mistake of confusing looking tough with shouting every line at each other. After a while, it simply loses its effect.
Throughout, however, the same players demonstrate their versatility in a show that requires not only a hundred different moods, but a depth and vitality to each one. It’s this energy and the commitment to it that makes the play a treat to watch. Sixty years on, the heavy and nearly clunky symbolism of the ‘Somewhere’ scene, in which the entire cast dances in white on a brilliantly lit stage, can verge dangerously on caricature. It is the energy that the cast puts into it that turns it into one of the show’s most convincingly real scenes.
West Side Story is on tour around the UK from this month until June next year. More information and tickets are available here.
PHOTOS/ Ambassadors Theatre Group