West Side Story – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
West Side Story – Review
Leeds Grand Theatre, May 2014
by Sandra Callard
West Side Story is a phenomenal, blockbusting giant of a musical. It premiered over 50-years ago on Broadway and it was an immediate runaway success. Winner of ten Oscars for the film version, it made Hollywood history. Its pedigree is second to none. Leonard Bernstein’s superb musical score couples with Stephen Sondheim’s incomparable lyrics and together they produce just about the greatest score of any musical ever written. The songs – ‘Tonight’, ‘Maria’, ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ – stand alone as great classics in their own right.
Loosely based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, Verona becomes fifties New York and the star-crossed lovers become Tony and Maria. Two rival gangs roam the mean streets, the Puerto-Rican Sharks and the Polish-American Jets. When Tony and Maria meet – he an ex-member of the Jets trying to move on to better things, she the sister of the leader of the Sharks – the stage is set for the iconic tale of love, violence and loss.
“Breathtaking in its balletic beauty”
So how does the latest version of the show stack up against the numerous productions over the past 57-years? Pretty damn good, I’d say! Katy Hall plays Maria. She is a pretty young soprano who attains heights of glory when she sings. Her ‘Tonight’ is a triumph, with perfect enunciation and a voice as clear as the proverbial bell. Louis Maskell, who plays her lover, is perfect in the part. He can act as well as sing, and has the startling good looks of a matinee idol. But best of all he has the most beautiful tenor voice. It soars effortlessly from whispering words of love to thundering joy.
The set pieces are brilliant, thanks to the skill and experience of Jerome Robbins, choreographer extraordinaire,. When the Puerto Rican girls sing ‘America’, with Djalenga Scott as the feisty and sexy Anita, the house erupts. All the cast can sing, and sing well, but oh boy! their dancing is sublime! The knife fight between the rival gangs is breathtaking in its balletic beauty. It keeps the audience gasping with anticipation until the outcome. The physical speed and intricacy of the movements are alarming. They must have the fitness of Olympians – especially the men. I thought only women could do the high kicks, but I am so wrong!
“Vividly redolent of areas of poverty”
I love the comedy piece by the Jets as they attempt to excuse their delinquency by blaming their upbringing whilst singing ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. It is superbly done and genuinely funny. As a piece of light relief it really works. The sets are stark and grey, with iron staircases running up and down the outside of New York buildings. Laser images are thrown onto the back of the sets showing high rise tenements. They are vividly redolent of the areas of poverty where the poor and the immigrant population once lived. The lasers also serve as shop interiors, streets and bedrooms, and work beautifully as quick scene changers.
I have some reservations about the obvious neatness and cleanliness of these gangs of New York City. At times they look more like naughty schoolboys in the playground than violent teenagers. They push each other playfully and obey the police when told to move on with no more than a cheeky grimace. I do wonder also about the young female would-be gang member, Anybodys, played by Jessica Frances Fiala. She runs about furiously, but covers only inches of ground. She seems rather superfluous to it all.
But here I am only nit-picking, simply because there are so few nits to pick. It is a superb production and the capacity audience went wild – and quite rightly so.
Photos: Alastair Muir