Leo Ash Evens
Cited by many as the best Broadway musical of all time, West Side Story took the story of Romeo and Juliet and thrust it into the world of New York street gangs in the 1950s. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, it was explosive theatre then and still has its moments now, presented here in a 50th anniversary production which is due to tour later in the year.
Jerome Robbins’s original choreography, honoured by director Joey McKneely, remains as slick as the flick of a Zippo. The Sharks and the Jets zip and glide across the stage, legs reflected in the polished floor. The group numbers are joyous things, visually striking and exhilarating to behold.
The plot, as if it needs reiterating, is this: Tony and Maria meet at dance thrown to try and increase harmony on the streets. In their case it works instantly and they fall deeply in love, but this is a union neither side is happy with. Everyone and everything is against them from the start. Things get even messier for them following a rumble between the two gangs. Though Tony insists this should be a fair fight, fists only, blades are pulled and blood is spilt.
Sofia Escobar’s sweet-voiced Maria is rather foot-stompy and emotionally immature, caught in some halfway place between girl and woman. It is assumed by everyone that she will marry Chito, a Puerto Rican boy she does not love, so it is easy to see why she throws herself so completely at Tony the minute they meet. But Ryan Silvermans Tony is merely solid, he does not really stand out from pack. (Its worth noting that two other performers share the leads and Elisa Cordova and Scott Sussman will be playing the roles on other nights in the run.)
Paul Gallis’s set is also distracting, a collage of fire escapes and balconies that continually swing in and out of view, its clunky and visually unappealing and has an audible whirr when the various pieces move. There is also the sense that McKneely is going through the motions with some of the numbers, and at times its a faithful but slightly soulless staging. The true emotional richness of the piece isnt really revealed until the second half. Anitas assault by the Jets is truly unsettling, they toss her to the ground like human rubbish, spitting racial epithets. If at times the depiction of lives rendered cheap on the streets was rather undercut by the sight of so many nimble limbed dancers twirling about the place in tight, candy-coloured trousers, here the true ugliness of this violent world becomes apparent. The messy fall-out from the fateful rumble under the bridge also packs quite a punch.
While its depictions of knives and violence on the city streets inevitably and sadly still has its resonance, other aspects of the show feel unavoidably dated. The soppy Theres A Place For Us where the entire company takes to the stage in white outfits, including the now deceased Bernardo and Riff whose vests have matching bloodstains on the front is amusing rather than moving. The scene where the Jets taunt and mock the tubby police officer feels equally awkward. But, despite these moments, the production has an undeniable vibrancy. It is possible to get a sense of how daring it was in its time while enjoying it in its own right today.