Maria shines bright as a new star

Picture of Jets dancing

Jet powered: Spectacular dancing in the streets in West Side Story. Pictures: Alastair Muir

West Side Story

The New Alexandra Theatre

*****

FEW musicals, if any, have the power, raw emotion and sheer brilliance of West Side Story and by staying true to the 1957 original this production makes it easy to see how one show could unleash theatrical shockwaves still felt today.

Musicals came of age when this one show proved musicals need not be frothy, light-hearted song and dance romantic comedies, they could also be theatre, real drama, with music, songs, book and dance all combining to tell their part of a serious story.

The original had a young, largely unknown cast and this international touring production has even stayed true to that but what a cast it has unearthed. Jerome Robbins’ original choreography is demanding, with exciting contemporary dance, full of energy and aggression mixed with ballet and the young cast did not let the show or its heritage down. They were superb to a man – and woman of course - with strong leads and talented, confident support.

Louis Maskell gave us a sensitive rather than a macho Tony, the drugstore delivery boy who had moved on from the Jets street gang, but as the song says, “When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet  . . . “

He has to deliver some of the most iconic songs of the show such as Maria and Tonight and does not disappoint with a lovely, powerful, light tenor.Picture of Tony and Maria singing Tonight

His regular Maria, Katie Hall, last seen in Birmingham last year as Christine in the tour of The Phantom of the Opera, was ill, but cometh the hour  . . . cometh Charlotte Baptie whose days as an understudy are surely numbered. Remember the name because you will definitely hear it again. She is a star in the making if any producer or casting director is listening.

Louis Maskell as Tony with Katie Hall, who was ill on Press night, as Maria.

She has stage presence, she can act and as for singing . . . she has a voice of purity and clarity that can be diva powerful or soft, almost like praying, when needed, you can hear every word and she can hit top notes with ease that only pianists with long arms can reach. 

Her duets with Tony are a pleasure to listen to and the operatic duet, A Boy Like That/I have a love between her and the excellent Djalenga Scott as Anita is one of the highlights of the show.

Baptie also has fabulous diction, even through her Spanish accent you could hear every word. Accents, in all productions, can play havoc with dialogue, even here a few words were lost elsewhere amid the Spanish and New York twangs.

Scott was another with a clear voice and she gives us an assured Anita, sexy and sassy. Hers is a pivotal character, the final piece in a tragic jigsaw where every attempt to bring an element of sense and acceptance between the warring immigrant factions of newcomers, the Puerto Rican Sharks, and the Polish-American Jets, each battling for control of worthless streets on the upper West Side of Manhatten, is met with hostility and violence.

Leading the Sharks is Javier Cid as Bernado, Maria’s brother and Anita’s lover. He is a boy with not so much a chip as a full bag of spuds on his shoulder, living in a monochrome world of us and them and Cid gives him a lithe arrogance, bristling with anger against the more thuggish Riff, leader of the Jets played with a macho air bordering on psychotic by Jack Wilcox who gave a chilling rendition of Cool where you could almost feel the pent up hatred.

Both are supported by two excellent gangs in the big cast of 33, including, among the Sharks, Sinead Kenny, playing Consuela, who hails from that hotbed of Puerto Rican immigrants, Four Oaks in Sutton Coldfield.

Sinead made her professional debut in 9 - 5 The Musical, which played the Alex Picture of the Sharks dancingat the start of last year, and this visit, on the day after Press night, she was back at her old school, Arthur Terry, holding a theatre workshop. See, not all Sharks are bed.

Among the adults, the grown ups, West End regular David Delve as Doc, who runs the rundown, neighbourhood drugstore, has the most to get his teeth into and does it well as a despairing, lone voice trying to bring some reason to the chaos around him.

Shark practice: getting to grips with Jerome Robbin's choreography

Lt Schrank, played by Jason Griffiths, is the humourless, racist bigot of a NYPD detective charged with cleaning up the area, who, if anything, makes the tensions worse while Officer Krupke, the beat cop, played by Sion Tudor Owen, seems to have no higher purpose in life than to be the butt of the bittersweet jokes in the Jet’s Gee Officer Krupke song, one of the few moments of humour. Tudor is also part of another lighter moment, and again the butt of jokes, as Glad Hand, trying to arrange the dancing at the social evening where the air crackles with hostility and where Tony meets Maria.

Anybody’s, played by Charlie Cameron, the girl wanna-be gang member, brings some amusement as do Tony and Maria in their exchange in the dress shop leading to the touching One Hand , One Heart but in the main there is nothing much to smile about. A train crash is happening before your eyes and originally Jerome Robbins, and now his former assistant Joey McKneely, directing and reproducing the original 1957 Robbins choreography, builds up the tension and the pace to its inevitable, tragic conclusion. This is one of the few musicals that ends not with a big upbeat number or dance routine, but in the depths of depression in virtual silence.

Much is made of legendary director and choreographer Robbins, and of the music of Bernstein along with the lyrics of the then virtually unknown Sondheim but Arthur Laurents deserves much credit as well for the book, taking Romeo and Juliet and putting it into a 1950’s gang setting. No one would have swallowed the sleeping draught ending and faked death of Juliet in 1957 Manhattan, least of all Maria, Picture of Anita dancing with the Shark girlsso Laurents changed the ending, with the vital message instead of being too late, as it was to Romeo, falling victim to the hatred consuming everyone and being fatally twisted after Anita, trying to help, is brutally sexually assaulted by the Jets, setting in train Tony’s reworking of  Romeo’s suicide. It was an ingenious and necessary modernisation of Shakespeare’s plot.

Feeling pretty and glad to be in America, Anita, Djalenga Scott, with the Shark girls

The whole production is helped by Paul Gallis’s set of moveable gloomy walls of tenement fire escapes with a changing backdrop of grainy shots of New York slums with clever lighting from Peter Halbsgut creating everything from despair to hope, in the Somewhere ballet for example, romance to sheer panic.

The whole scene is then brought alive by Bernstein's glorious score played by the excellent 19 strong orchestra, an orchestra big enough to even have a leader, Tina-Jacobs-Lim.

These days 19 is unheard of in a musical, let along a touring production, and what a difference it makes. Bernstein had 31 at the Broadway opening, and perhaps today’s budgets don't stretch that far, but there were still enough members to give a full sound and a symphonic feel under musical director Ben Van Tienen.

I must confess that when I entered the theatre West Side Story was my favourite musical and when I left absolutely nothing had changed. To 19-04-14.

Roger Clarke

Is West Side Story the best musical ever?

Paul Marston's view

02-04-14

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