With New York grit and Mancunian swagger, this bolshie reinvention works a treat
Since its birth, any professional production of West Side Story has been obliged to use the original Jerome Robbins iconic choreography; it seemed as much part of the story as Shakespeare’s contribution. Now the restriction has been dropped, theatres can be a little more creative.
There’s an almost Mancunian swagger in The Royal Exchange’s decision to be the first to grasp this opportunity. It’s brave. It’s a risk. Get this beloved twentieth century classic wrong, and its growing reputation for stunning yet intimate musical theatre would be damaged.
Happily, its West Side Story will be a great success. And not just at the box office.
I think we all know the story: Romeo and Juliet transported to 1950s Manhattan, where first- and second-generation immigrant youngsters find validity through gang membership. Issues of rights, ownership and prejudice often cause violent tensions, and sometimes inevitable tragedy. The dancing and songs - from mambo to Viennese waltz, America to Maria - are almost as well known.
The creative team play to the strengths of the space. An enlarged stage, at the expense of some seating, allows designer Anna Fleischle to include the structure of the auditorium within her moveable steel design to create the rooms, fire escapes and social spaces of New York. There’s extra space, too, for choreographer Aletta Collins to stage some remarkable work. Robbins’ style is strongly referenced rather than jettisoned, and dance numbers portray inner feelings, particularly of the Jets and Sharks gang members.
This is director Sarah Francom’s first musical. It doesn’t show. What does shine through is a belief that multi-layered characters are an essential part of a story, and that musicals can enhance their portrayal, rather than reduce them to two dimensions.
Andy Coxon as Tony and Gabriella Garcia as Maria are well cast as the lead roles, their harmonised voices bringing freshness to well-known songs. Yes, the romance is a little rapid, but I think that lies at Shakespeare’s door. Andy Coxon’s Tony, maturing away from gang-life, is still capable of a rush to love and a rush to revenge. Gabriella Garcia’s Maria is young, innocent and romantic - but with determination, defiance and spirit never far away.
Soaring yet empathetic leads, perfect performances in the supporting roles, and natural yet sharply coordinated ensemble performances are enhanced by a superb sound from the orchestra under the direction of Mark Aspinall performing long-time West Side Story fan Jason Carr’s orchestration, which preserves the wit and beauty of the original in an adaptation for the smaller space.
While this production stands on its own merits, it’s also a fitting tribute to the music and lyrics of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, as well as to William Shakespeare of course. My only bugbear? Not listing the musical numbers in the programme.
West Side Story is virtually sold out, even at the higher-than-usual prices the Exchange now operates for musicals. There might still be some ‘day seats’ - information on the website is contradictory - and there’s an opportunity for extra spots on Wednesdays if you’re prepared to pay to become a member. While the removal of some seats and the higher prices can easily be justified as essential for this show, I do hope there is some way it can be seen more widely in future. I’m hoping The Royal Exchange is already working on ideas because this is a musical worth seeing.
West Side Story is at the Royal Exchange until 25 May
Images: Richard Davenport of The Other Richard