West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Howard Panter for The Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd
Joey McKneely’s stunning revival of West Side Story is currently taking the Sheffield Lyceum by storm.
It is a tribute to the original production that the book (Arthur Laurents), music (Leonard Bernstein) and lyrics (Stephen Sondheim) are still as fresh as paint.
Having seen the originalWest End production three times as an impressionable teenager, it was a delight to re-visit it and find that its irrepressible vitality is undiminished.
What struck me this time is how well constructed and full of contrasts the piece is. The vigorous dancing of the two street gangs is balanced by the lyrical episodes between the lovers: the tragedy of the second half is briefly alleviated by the boldly placed "Gee Officer Krupke" episode, while other comic song and dance routines, like "America" and "I Feel Pretty" provide more fun.
Bernstein’s music has stood the test of time, and is performed with gusto and plenty of strident brass by the excellent orchestra under musical director Ben Van Tienen.
New York’s West Side (set design by Paul Gallis) is effectively conjured up by a large metal set representing decaying apartment blocks with balconies and an authentic, retractable hinged ladder against huge, evocative, projected black and white photographs of the city.
The lighting by Peter Halbsgut is striking throughout, not least when the colour palate changes from blood red to a washed out white for the nightmare sequence in the second half. Colour is also used to good effect in the costume design by Renate Schmitzer, particularly in the dance hall scene, where the Puerto Rican group is resplendently dressed.
The choreography and the dancing is consistently thrilling, inventive and vigorous, with all sorts of small detail added to assist characterisation and enhance relationships, violent or other. The production is now so well-established that all the secondary characters in the two gangs are clearly individualised, as much by their acting as their remarkable dance skills.
Much credit must be given to the five principal performers. Louis Maskell as Tony and Katie Hall as Maria have lovely voices, and it is a pleasure to hear them singing the often challenging but familiar lyrical numbers. They also bring a depth of emotional sincerity to their performances, recalling Shakespeare’s lovers, so that their descent into tragedy is genuinely moving.
Djalenga Scott is a splendid Anita, as good as any I’ve seen before. The caustic side of her character is well brought out in the delightful "America", and she is dramatically very strong in the throbbing "A Boy like That Who Kills Your Brother" and the subsequent rape scene. As lead dancer for the Shark girls, she is completely compelling. It is difficult to take your eyes off her.
As the two gang leaders, Javier Cid as Bernardo, and Jack Wilcox as Riff, are dynamic and hugely energetic in the extended gang dance sequences, and also completely convincing in the dramatic aspects of their roles. Cid is particularly expressive when squaring up to Wilcox in the confrontation sequences, and Wilcox controls the physically demanding and rhythmically difficult song and dance sequence, "Cool" to great effect.
Director Joey McKneely deserves much credit for co-ordinating this complex and brilliant show, for establishing a style of performance in which strong emotions are credible and for a plethora of production ideas which add richness to a splendid evening in the theatre.
Reviewer: Velda Harris