Review: West Side Story @ WMC
America’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-fighting take on Romeo and Juliet, the now-classic West Side Story, is in Wales for two weeks only and is sure to delight audiences throughout its visit.
Guilty of changing musical theatre forever, this boy meets girl story is set against a backdrop of engorging street violence, pervasive poverty and relentless racism in mid-century Manhattan. It is a fascinating, explosive way to explore status, fear and discrimination, especially in Cardiff’s world famous multi-cultural hub, the former Tiger Bay.
"A dark take on life"
If you are looking for a light-hearted, fluffy romantic story, this is not for you. This is a dark take on life, an uneasy exploration of what it is to be; it’s much more than a love story. Littered with unforgettable scores by the prolific Leonard Bernstein (like America), and interlaced with ardent, full-on dance numbers by Jerome Robbins, this is a show that enthrals, and I doubt there are many better versions of it across the country.
As viewers, we have privileged (and safe) access to two parallel narratives: the fighting between two gangs - The Jets and The Sharks - and Tony and Maria’s love story. The turf tensions are exacerbated by the fact that The Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. The love story is complicated (isn’t it always?!) by the fact that white Tony falls for Latino Maria, the sister of The Sharks’ leader.
There were many stellar performances in a show that produced many classic moments; moments I would have been devastated to miss had I not broken out of my locked office just in time! (Hu)man of the match must go to Louis Maskell (Alcaeus in Atlantis), who played Tony. When he sang, his voice melted from his mouth, oozed class and fizzed charisma. He was encapsulating. He had us all dangling from every beautifully-held note. His solo rendition of the famous Maria, set on an empty, darkened stage with him walking slowly, pensively and lovesick towards us was nothing short of masterful. The audience wants these big moments done well and they weren't disappointed.
A true highlight for me - and my +1’s overall favourite - was the hilarious Anita, Maria’s best friend. She was played by the ever-so-talented Djalenga Scott, who had it all: style, wit, personality, class, looks and bags of acting talent. Yes, she clearly had a funny part (and hats must go off to the script-writers), but she executed her role perfectly and made the character her own.
Scott played well a strong, hardened woman, who always had something funny to say, which brought a positive energy to the show. The audience eagerly anticipated her contribution in every scene. She perhaps didn’t have the best voice of all, but it was made for the deep, mocking exchanges she had with the gangs and for the comic verses of songs, such as America. It’s no surprise she’s one of the West End’s most sought-after actresses.
"Impossible love in a war-stricken world"
You need no other reason to go and see the show than to experience Maria’s (Katie Hall) angelic voice and besotted, taken disposition. If Anita was the character you fall for, Maria is the character you fall with. She has the responsibility of carrying the audience into and through the theme of love; impossible love in a war-stricken world. She’s so overwhelmed by love that it overflows into a magical nervous energy, with which she rushes around stage. It seems that I had never fully understood harmony until I heard her sing with Tony – which is not to be missed. It turns out they were made for each other after all!
The fight scenes were dramatic, thrilling and edge-of-your-seat affairs, yet they were delivered with grace and - somehow - beauty. Yes, beauty. The performers were perfectly choreographed to move in time with each other; to roll over and over together; and to swing and duck and dive and slide together. The production took the glory out of fighting and put it into dancing and gymnastics, yet the dancing and gymnastics did more for the fighting than any “mere” acting could have done.
Photo by Alistair Muir
They held back no punches in the second half. It was as shocking, violent and destructive as anyone could dare imagine. It was darkâ€¦ so dark at times. But that was the world they lived in; perhaps the world they chose to live in, perhaps the world they inherited. Perhaps it is just (hu)man’s prerogative to be the best and be the fittest to surviveâ€¦
"The big, black, all-consuming hole that is hatred"
Yet it was a darkness pierced by the joy - captured so well in this display - of new American liberties, the hope of American (D)dreaming, and the age-old light that is love. They could have kept these things but, tragically, they threw them away, taking others’ liberties away in the process. In fact, they dragged everything and everyone into the big, black, all-consuming hole that is hatred. For some, this was the love that reigned.
There were some – albeit minor – criticisms or inconsistencies that need reporting. It was quite visible that some of the dancing/fighting/movement at the start wasn’t in-synch. Since it didn’t seem far enough out of synch to be deliberate, it must have been riddled with minor mistakes. This left me a little bit disappointed in a show that was designed to occupy the top stages in the UK. Moreover, how Tony (Maskell), one of the smallest, least menacing individuals on the stage, managed to have the respect of both The Jets and The Sharks, is beyond me. Perhaps, offering some sort of plausible explanation on stage would have been beneficial.
Similarly, while there were no bad performances, some lights didn’t shine as brightly as they should have for their roles and stage. The two most prominent examples were the leader of The Jets, Riff (Jack Wilcox), and the leader of The Sharks, Bernardo (Javier Cid). Although they both looked the part - they had the hair, style and looks/swag to pull it off – their voices and acting weren’t quite where they should have been. They clearly had lots of potential, however, as they carried us successfully through the show. For now, they would perhaps have been better suited to understudies. There is no shame in that.
So, this is a story full of extremes and contrasts: between poisoned, infectious hate and untainted, sweeping love; between perfect togetherness and total destruction; and between desperate hope and despairing loss. It is a story full of choices: between family and lovers, war and peace, status andâ€¦ apparent nothingness. It is a rendition brimming with class and decorated with memorable moments that audiences will delight in over and over again. Go see it, if you can!
West Side Story continues at the Wales Millennium Centre until Saturday 23rd August 2014. You can buy tickets here.
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