West Side Story

Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
National Youth Music Theatre
Victoria Warehouse, Manchester

In its illustrious 37-year history—which includes a number of Edinburgh Fringe Firsts, BAFTA shortlisting for its TV adaptations and numerous international tours—it is difficult to imagine that the National Youth Music Theatre has ever been on better form than in its current production of West Side Story, staged at The Victoria Warehouse in Manchester.

West Side Story has its detractors. It’s become rather chic to suggest that it's dated (it hasn’t) or that the second half doesn’t work because the comic number “Officer Krupke” sits awkwardly with the tragic tone of the rest of the act (it works brilliantly and it doesn’t sit awkwardly at all). In so doing it suffers from the same self-parodying criticism that is often levelled at great art or artists—e.g. Laurence Olivier was really a bit of a ham and the Mona Lisa is just a picture of a grinning broad.

It’s all rubbish and West Side Story is an indisputable work of genius; and if you dispute that I may have to ask you to step outside for a while. Assuming that we have future governments who don’t starve the the arts of resources and live theatre is still around in 100 years, I’d bet my house that West Side Story is still produced. What is less certain is whether future productions will be as good as this one.

If the realisation of this extraordinary musical came about because the creators of it
(Sondheim, Bernstein and Laurents) were all at the top of their respective games, then the same may be said of the production team here. Nikolai Foster is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the country’s leading directors and, on the strength of this production alone, its pretty easy to see why.

Gutsy, unsentimental, compelling, pacey and assured, his direction is matched by some breathtaking and muscular choreography by Drew McOnie. The entrance of the Jets, 'America', 'The Rumble' all were greeted by spontaneous cheering and applause.

But these weren’t really standout moments because the whole show was a two and a half hour glorious standout moment. The design by Takis in transforming the Victoria Warehouse in 1950s gangland New York is not just imaginatively economic, it also creates a harsh, grubby yet febrile environment for the inevitable tragedy to be played out. The musical direction is frankly superb and the 30+ youth orchestra stunning.

Then there is the company of actors themselves. In a uniformly outstanding display of ensemble playing it perhaps seems invidious to mention individuals. But the hell with it, I will anyway. There were excellent performances from Dominic Harrison and Max Jorquera as the doomed gang leaders Riff and Bernado respecitively; Amara Okereke made a beautifully sensitive and utlimately tragic Maria. Sienna Kelly (Anita) has the poise, timing, confidence and stage presence of someone twice her age (she’s 17) and Jon Tarcy (Tony) at 19 is the finest interpreter of a lyric of any performer of his age I have ever heard.

This is the National Youth Music theatre at its finest. A company of utterly committed, fearless and passionate performers who have taken on one of the toughest and finest pieces of musical theatre ever written—and totally nailed it.

I could go on and—if you’re in my local tonight at the same time as me—I will. This is what theatre should be and so often isn’t. It wasn’t just an emotional journey, it was a visceral, shattering uplifting experience which left you stunned and yet wanting more. I’m relieved and grateful that at the age of 50 I can still watch theatre which makes me jump spontaneously to my feet at the end while desperately trying to wipe the tears away before anyone notices.

Reviewer: Richard Vergette

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