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West Side Story

Book by Arthur Laurents, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Music by Leonard Bernstein

Royal Exchange Theatre, 11 April 2019

Jocasta Almgill (Anita) in West Side Story. Photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

This is a wonderful production of the classic musical.

For this outing, there was a larger diameter to the Royal Exchange stage than usual. I reckon that at least one tier of inner seats had been removed to create the New York street scenes with fire escape and all. And to create sorely needed space for dancing.

Needed because Aletta Collins’s original choreography, here energetically performed by a young and talented cast, was the outstanding facet of the show. In particular, the richly dramatic ‘dance moves’ accompanying the song ‘Play It Cool’ were perfect.

Bernstein’s score, which augurs in a new America and can be considered a counterpoint to Gershwin’s Manhattan, makes the show (and the characters in it) tick; it is at the root of everything. The music is vital, twitchy, jangly, full of nervous energy. To do justice to it, the dance has got to be top-notch. As a song, ‘Play It Cool’ is super-ironic because these kids (for all their swagger and pose and apparent confidence) are anything but. They are uptight, prone to impulse, on the edge, trigger-happy. They have nothing and are fighting over a patch of neighbourhood in an alien land. Aletta Collins’s choreography for ‘Play It Cool’ showed you all of this: it was a group portrait of young, immigrant America: unstable, volatile and yet, for all that, full of promise. Certain songs in the latter part of the show express a yearning for peace and solace, but it is not forthcoming.

This time out I was struck by a remark made by Doc (he is the wise, old head that people in the community look up to) along the lines that they, the kids, were behaving as though they were always at war. And I wondered whether this might have derived ultimately from what Bernstein saw and sensed when he worked in Israel (or Palestine, as it once was) in the ’40s and ’50s. Perhaps some of the insecurity and dread in the music derives from that experience?

There is an unsought topicality in seeing West Side Story now, what with the prevalence of  knife crime. It is unsought, but it is there. An ineluctable procession of tragedy.

My review of an exhibition devoted to Leonard Bernstein at the Jewish Museum in Vienna is here.

West Side Story is showing at the Royal Exchange until 25 May, further details can be found here.