Review: West Side Story

Entertainment

James Waddell – ✮✮✮✮✮

When I bumped into West Side Story’s marketing manager in the packed Playhouse foyer, he had the air of a man stepping back to admire his handiwork. “To be fair”, he contentedly remarked, “it wasn’t exactly a hard sell”. It certainly wasn’t – the guys and girls of this West Side weren’t just star-cross’d, they were star-studded. Dominic Applewhite of Pillowman and Orlando acclaim was at the helm, having apparently gone through his contacts list calling in favours to assemble what must be one of the most consistently strong Oxford ensembles of recent years.

Still, even for such a seasoned bunch, they had a heavy burden of history to bear. Bernstein and Sondheim’s Big Apple re-hash of Romeo and Juliet is nothing short of iconic. How to breathe fresh life into a show that’s constantly on and off Broadway, reproduced on film, even parodied in Family Guy? This production’s strategy was to take a smart, lucid and perceptive approach to the big and bold musical theatre medium – and, on the whole, it was utterly triumphant.

The pressure on the cast, though, was initially clear to see. The ominous clicks of the legendary opening number, the wordless Prologue, were accompanied by dance that felt (whilst obviously excellently choreographed by Ed Addison) tentative, cautious, lacking the Jets’ swagger. It was only when the Sharks arrived, and the choreography swung into longer, more subtly aggressive strides that the tension suddenly shot up. Jets and Sharks hissed past each other like tomcats, spitting jibes and dares at one another. They, and us, precariously navigated the thin line between the jest of the silly nick-names, the “your mother” slurs, the pathetic mock “war councils”, and the deadly seriousness of lethal violence. Tommy Siman as Jets head honcho Riff brought not only a great voice (nothing less was to be expected from the Alternotives Musical Director) but also a robust physicality to the role. He lent Riff’s Stanley Kowalski-esque malapropisms (“I’m a victim of disappointment in you”) an eminently likeable charm, undercut by the simmering confidence that, if it came to it (and it did, a lot), he could probably take you in a fight. Artemas Froushan as Bernardo, Riff’s Puerto Rican opposite number, was slick and smooth on the surface, but expertly conveyed the apprehension and anxiety of the immigrant outsider. The gangs themselves, dotted with familiar names like Niall Docherty and Nathan Ellis, were also lively, with more than a trace of homoeroticism in their constantly tactile and corporeal homosociality.

It is testament to the complexity of the acting that there was room for this sort of sexual charge in a work so defined by heteronormativity. This was a production that was acutely aware of the text’s dated and problematic depiction of relationships. Far from awkwardly glossing over the misogyny, though, it was deliberately and uncomfortably heightened – as the curtain rises, our first image of Riff is on an empty stage, pushing his tongue down the throat of an anonymous, silent woman, who is cast aside like a prop as he wipes his mouth. It doesn’t get any easier to watch, and eventually descends into a nightmarish attempted rape, a grotesque parody of the leads’ loving sexuality.

This production’s secret weapon, though, was one name who no-one will have seen treading the Oxford boards – Yale visiting student Brandon Levin, starring as Tony. His performance can only be described as barnstorming. His voice, unmistakably all-American, had that ineffable Rogers & Hammerstein gold dust, but he made the part far more than a vocal vehicle. Complex and multivalent, his rendition of “Tonight” was inflected with a quiet desperation underneath the excitement, whilst the ebullient “Maria” didn’t just tell us how beautiful someone’s name repeated over and over could be, it showed us. Clementine Collett as leading lady didn’t struggle to keep up vocally, but I found it slightly more difficult to care about her Maria. Whilst her passion at the denouement was genuinely emotive, her characterization on the whole was a little too professional, a little too smooth around the edges. Helena Wilson as Maria’s sister Anita brought out the best in both of them, though, bringing rounded personhood, winning affability and a strong vocal performance to a rendition of the iconic “America” that could so easily be a sassy caricature.

The choreography was less strong during the quieter, gentler love scenes, falling too often on the wrong side of the line between tenderness and awkwardness. And while the cast made a decent stab at a ballet-influenced sequence, it did feel a little like ballet should be left to people who, you know, actually know how to do ballet. Conversely, some of the strongest moments were the big ensemble set-piece dance scenes. The gym-hall dance was executed to stunning, exuberant perfection, and was a joy to watch.

This show would’ve sold out if it had been thrown together in half the time, with minimal effort. It probably would have got four stars here, too. With their combined talents, Applewhite and company probably wouldn’t really have needed to try to make this show a forgettable success. But try they most certainly did. Their refusal to rest on their laurels is admirable, and shows in every nook and cranny of this show. It feels built on the philosophy of marginal gains – at every step, it asks itself how it can be more complicated, more intelligent, more visually striking, more aurally beautiful. The result is outstanding.

 

Lyn Billington – ✮✮✮✮✮

Staging a musical is a brave move, never more so than in the Oxford Playhouse. Student shows in the Playhouse tend to be the most quasi-professional they come, and Dominic Applewhite’s bold and exciting production of West Side Story is one of the closest student shows yet to be close to those professional standards.

Unlimited credit is due to the three performers whose presence brought last night to very real life. In many musicals acting comes second to singing. Not so here. Watching the ease with which Clemi Collett lived through the elation and despair of Maria was a delight to witness. Particularly in the second act, she carried the audience with her through each scene. Alongside Collett was the iron presence of Helena Wilson as Anita; a more emotionally complicated role and one Wilson played truthfully and powerfully. Brandon Levin is quite possibly the perfect Tony. Alone, his presence lit up the stage and captivated the audience. Within the Jets, he can choose to blend in, to lead the pack, or to shrink into darkness. His peerless rendition of “Maria” was the first hair-raising moment of the production. I cannot expostulate enough about the professional talent of these three actors. Between them they carried this production into another tier of theatre, one musicals do not, in my opinion, usually reach.

The production as a whole flowed seamlessly, and, after an initial unconfident opening from some slightly puppet-like Jets, I was able to relax entirely, rather than worry rather aimlessly on behalf of nervous actors, something I frequently tend towards in distinctly unpolished student theatre. This is testament to the strength of all aspects of the show: the choreography interchanged impressively between bright, fast dances and slick switch-knife jabs; the set, lighting and music all acted exactly as they should: as complimentary yet subtle platforms from which the leading actors could be flatteringly displayed. Excepting one lighting error, during which the audience giggled as we watched Levin and Collett, underwear-clad, climb into their marital chamber, and the occasional case of some enthusiastic trumpets drowning out Collett’s dulcet tones, everything was perfectly engineered to allow the cast to shine.

The cast of West Side Story should be confident in their ability, therefore, to shine. Everything is in place; it remains only for those recently trained dancers to follow the lead of the exceptional Puerto-Rican dancers and relax into their choreography as much as I did into the performance as a whole. Very few student shows can make a claim to being professional as this one can, though many try to do so. West Side Story is a colourful and exciting performance that will tug at your heart-strings and leave you starry-eyed. If you can get a ticket – and you may struggle, as the marketing has been done just as well as everything else – I would strongly recommend this production.

PHOTO/ Nathan Stazicker