Theatre review: West Side Story

Where: Milton Keynes Theatre / When: 14th June 2014

First up, a confession: I’m not a huge fan of the central plot of West Side Story. Nor am I particularly fond of Romeo and Juliet, on which it’s based. The older I become, the less patience I have for the story of two teenagers who fall in love in like, a second, and then wreak havoc, bringing peace only through untimely demises. The violence and waste of life in both stories feels more senseless and frustrating to me as the years go by. The violence and gang warfare seems to stay especially potent, as gang violence remains a persistent and deadly problem.

However exasperated I get with the story though, you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by this wonderful production. High class from start to finish, this was an exuberent, emotive and visually striking production of West Side Story, with a young and impressive cast.

The music and lyrics, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim respectively, are so lovely, so soaring and so full of emotion, it’s impossible not to be swept up by them. I had forgotten how many of them I knew, how many of them are now musical theatre classics. After all, there is a reason they have endured so long.

The staging and lighting were very atmospheric, creating a cloistered, claustraphobic world of hot, dusty streets and apartment buildings. The cast filled the stage with a restless energy. I had looked forward to the dancing the most and Jerome Robbins’ famed choreography did not disappoint.All the dance numbers were bursting with energy and fervour and beautifully executed. The ballet sequence in the middle that was accompanied by ‘Somewhere’ was particularly moving, with the cast all in white, envisioning some sort of idyllic alternative to their present situation. Maria remained in virginal white throughout, a no doubt direct comparison to Anita, who wore bright, vibran colours. (I think we can all agree that Anita is the best part to play, no?).

The darker underbelly of the show (which was lost on me as a child) was strking here. The constant violence, the inherent, embedded racism (especially from Lieutenant Schrank) and the brutal, terrifying treatment of Anita. So many of the themes in the show are still relevant today and it was exciting to see a performance of a show that still felt fresh, more than 50 years later.

West Side Story is touring the UK until September 2014.

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