The inclusion of West Side Story to the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Spring/Summer season is undeniably relevant to our current climate. With youths becoming increasingly dissociated in society and gang related knife crime increasing, the comparisons with this classic story become all too apparent. In the musical, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the streets of New York are controlled by two opposing gangs, The Jets and their rivals, The Sharks, who are Puerto Rican immigrants. Endless violence ensues and two star-crossed lovers are caught in the cross-fire. It would not be far-fetched to imagine this happening on our streets today.
West Side Story also sadly marks Sarah Frankcom’s final directorial piece as the Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange. Frankcom is certainly ending her tenure with a flourish, bravely making the decision to reinvent the musical for modern audiences. All other productions have strictly followed Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and direction, and it has become as iconic as Leonard Bernstein’s musical score. Frankcom is the first to alter what has previously been treated as gospel, and it works a treat! The cast is reduced, resulting in gang members having a unique identity. The score is updated, feeling fresh with some songs being repositioned to make the narrative flow better. This is West Side Story with a contemporary spin.
Likewise, Aletta Collins completely revises Robbins’ choreography to suit the round theatre space. The famous finger clicks are there, but they are toned down. There is a new sexual charge to the dancing, which lends it more energy, particularly in the dances that involve the full ensemble. This is emphasised by the actors playing the two leaders, Fernando Mariano’s Bernardo and Michael Duke’s Riff, who seem charged with carnal desire. Duke is a phenomenal dancer, with a mesmerising fluidity to his body, but with an equally commanding presence on stage, identifying him as the leader of the Jets.
Every version of West Side Story hinges on its Tony and Maria. Andy Coxon and Gabriella Garcia both impress at the ill-fated couple. They share an incredible chemistry that shines throughout the production. Coxon is a perfect Tony. He demonstrates his exquisite vocal range by delivering the tenderness and soaring euphoria in the song ‘Maria’. His voice is consistently inflected with a New York accent. Garcia is also strong as Maria, bringing a refreshing cheekiness to the role. Personally, her operatic notes didn’t work for me and they feel out of place in this musical. Despite this, she is a fine actor, and at the end, delivers heart-wrenching sorrow and grief.
The stand out performances come from Jocasta Almgill as Anita, and Sebastian Goffin as Action. Almgill is a sheer joy to watch, and she steals the show as Maria’s confidante. With plenty of wit and delight, she is captivating in the famous ‘America’. It is one of the highlights of the show for me. The other is the repositioned ‘Gee Officer Krupke!’, which is performed by Action and the other members of the Jets, rather than Riff. Funny, yet sad, this is delivered with brilliant comic timing from Goffin.
The problem I have with this production is its abstract set design of a white steel frame, with glass floors. Evoking the stairwells and fire escapes of New York apartment blocks, it effectively provides various levels for the play’s action to happen. However, at times, it feels like a climbing frame in a child’s playground when characters swing upon the frame. It also comes at a cost. Several rows of the Royal Exchange’s theatre had to be removed, meaning that the audience has to be reduced.
Sight-line issues are caused for people sitting on the rear stage level seats, as it is difficult to see what is happening on the raised platform when you are sat underneath it, with the first gallery blocking your view. Likewise, the steel frame spoilt the tenderness of ‘Somewhere’, as a white steel bar ran right across the singer’s face. Clunky and obstructive, the set design lets West Side Story down.
The Royal Exchange have a great track record with musicals, after their superb productions of Guys and Dolls and The Producers. Their reputation is still intact as West Side Story is mostly a success. It proves that although Sarah Frankcom will be missed by this theatre and its audience, the future remains hopeful.
West Side Story is on until May 25th, although you may have to sell a kidney for a ticket as it has practically sold out.