West Side Story
Conceived by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
For Sarah Frankcom's final season at the Royal Exchange, she has chosen to revive a show that, after sixty years, still feels as fresh and radical as it did in 1957, with a score that is arguably the greatest in the whole musical theatre canon.
The show, as conceived by Jerome Robbins, is basically a dance show that translates Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to the youth gang culture of the West Side of Manhattan in the 1950s—a hot topic at the time—which just happened to bring on board three other giants of musical theatre—Leonard Bernstein on music, Arthur Laurents on book and Stephen Sondheim on lyrics—to shape it into something that still feels like a unique fusion of opera, ballet and musical with contemporary moves, melodies and rhythms. As the distinctive Robbins choreography was baked into the original concept rather than added later, it has been recreated for almost every production since.
The brave soul charged with ditching Robbins's moves and creating brand new choreography is Aletta Collins, who choreographed Sweet Charity at the Exchange for Christmas 2017, and she's actually done a remarkably good job of it for a rehearsal period that can't compare with those of Broadway or the West End. Perhaps some of the earlier street scenes don't quite 'pop' as well as the original and some of the group songs and dances leave the actors noticeably breathless when singing, but when it matters the routines are impressive. The group dance routines look great, and the relentless intensity of act II is broken up by a brilliant staging of "Officer Krupke" set like a tag wrestling match inside a 'ring' of police tape. Together with some very physical one-to-one and group fights choreographed by Kevin McCurdy, the important movement element of the show is in safe hands.
But also, Frankcom's production, in the intimate space of the Royal Exchange where the performers are almost literally in the laps of the spectators, is able to focus very strongly on the words and the characters, which brings out more than usual both the clever wit of Laurents and Sondheim and the shocking nastiness of some of the characters, which still rings true even (perhaps especially) today. While you want to slap some sense into the stubborn teenagers, it is the authority figures who are the real villains, especially bile-spitting, racist police lieutenant Schrank and his sidekick Officer Krupke.
The 22-strong cast work very well together to fill the Exchange's small stage. Gabriela Garcia is perfect as Maria, bringing just the right amount of innocence and mischievousness to the character and her wholehearted love for Andy Coxon's Tony, who portrays well the gang member trying to grow up and leave his past behind, is entirely convincing. Jocasta Almgill's Anita also impresses with a character who has to show intense love, hatred, grief and also understanding when she discovers that Maria is still seeing the man who killed her love—a beautifully played scene.
The only two actors to double parts are given some nicely contrasting roles: Tom Hodgkins as drugstore owner Doc, who shakes his head at the naiveté of his young customers, and as Officer Krupke and Jack Lord as Glad Hand, the well-meaning social worker who organises the dance, and as a particularly nasty Schrank. Michael Duke as Riff and Fernando Mariano head the two gangs up to their fatal fight with some nicely measured performances.
Anna Fleischle's design is kept minimal throughout: the white, square scaffold towers work well for introducing height and physicality, but the one that doesn't move was blocking my view of some scenes and restricts the stage space in parts. The impressive-sounding 11-strong orchestra under musical director Mark Aspinall is parked in sheds outside the theatre module and piped through the PA. The performers are all miked, so it can be difficult sometimes to spot who is talking or singing when all the voices are coming from the ceiling, and when the entire company is singing with a full orchestra, especially in "Tonight", the sound becomes a bit harsh and muddy.
As a fresh look at a show that hasn't really aged much in sixty years, either in its theatrical style or in its social message, this is definitely a success for the Royal Exchange—and with many performances sold out right to the end of the run, it's proving very successful at the box office too.