Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • WEST SIDE STORY [world tour] • The Lowry, Salford Keys • 2008

westsidestoryWest Side Story [Special Edition] [DVD] [1961]

As he loves to remind us, Cliff Richard has been churning out hits for some 50 years now. The irrepressible “original pin-up” seems bewilderingly lost in a modern cultural climate, like someone’s granddad appearing uninvited at a wild house party and insisting on teaching the young folk how to dance. What a relief, then, to discover that West Side Story, celebrating its own 50th anniversary is as vital, fresh and zingy as it’s ever been. With this world tour recreating the original choreography and direction of the legendary Jerome Robbins, it’s a rare opportunity to see the full package live, backed by a 20-piece pit orchestra.

Frankly, any production of West Side Story has absolutely no reason not to be anything but sublime; this is arguably the greatest achievement of the American musical, and the pinnacle of the 1950s Broadway boom. The raw materials of Laurents’ book, Bernstein’s score, Sondheim’s lyrics, and Robbins’ choreography (and just look at that line-up, would you?) are virtually faultless. Joey McKneely’s production is very good, much more than a dogged re-tread, but never crackles with electricity.

The story? Everyone knows it by now. Romeo and Juliet transposed to 1950s Manhattan, though Arthur Laurents is rarely credited for a smartly stylised script, and (honestly) improving the structure of Shakespeare’s original story. Bernstein’s score is something else, however. Sure, it’s of its time (packed with bongos, clicks, doo-wop shuffles,) but there isn’t one song that isn’t a master-class in how to do this sort of thing. Jazzy, tragic, swoony, funny, its versatility is genuinely astonishing. Paired with a young Sondheim’s lyrics, the pimples are frequently goosed. Spellbinding stuff, and Simon Beck’s curtain call is well deserved.

Robbins’ choreography (recreated step by step, Daddy-o) is the highlight of the evening. With an urgency and kinetic pulse all of its own, it leaves most contemporary work in the shade. Difficult to see now, but it was daring in its time; a unique fusion of ballet (although I’m secretly glad that Dream Ballet sequences died out with ration books,) jazz, Latin and contemporary, it’s a theatrical achievement to rank alongside the true greats. This is thrilling stuff, and the company do it full justice.

Against a noisy metallic set, with simple back-projections, the primary colour palette is a little irksome, but allows the enormous cast (literally) room to leap and sing. Sadly, Daniel Koek’s Tony (though fine-voiced) is a bit of a damp squib. He looks like a Geography teacher on a field trip, and never entirely convinces as a dashing romantic lead. Sofia Escobar’s Maria is absolutely lovely, though, and (understudy) Celia Mei Rubin’s flighty Latino spitfire Anita is a genuine standout. It’s all well-drilled, hugely energetic and very affecting.

Joey McKneely’s direction never manages to stamp his authorship on proceedings and is more pedestrian than the material deserves. That said, though, this knocks most current musical offerings out of the park, and successfully argues its case as the greatest synthesis of song, story and dance work of all time. When the projections slowly zoom into those monochrome tenement buildings, and the finger snaps build, and the street rumbles glide into ballet territory, there are some moments of awesome theatricality.

Matthew Nichols © 2008

Originally published on R&V on 01-10-08

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