Curve Leicester – until 11 January 2020
The Royal Exchange may have gotten there first this year but Nikolai Foster’s production of West Side Story for Leicester’s Curve proves an absolute triumph. Going down a similar route of featuring brand new choreography, here by Ellen Kane, the familiar becomes something refreshing and new and hugely emotionally satisfying. From its opening moments which set the anti-immigrant tone like never before, through musical supervisor Sarah Travis’ incredible treatment of this iconic Bernstein score, to Kane’s sensational set-pieces which fill every inch of the Curve’s stage, this is damn close to musical theatre perfection.
It works so well because for all of the epic sweep of its Romeo and Juliet-inspired story, this is a very intimate reading of it. Jamie Muscato and Adriana Ivelisse really are exceptional as the ill-fated lovers Tony and Maria, delivering an unforced chemistry that is sweetness personified. Theirs is a heady, instant passion that feels so natural as to be entirely captivating. Their flirting is delicately but determinedly done – there’s no mistaking what ‘Tonight’ holds here – and something ignites in them when together. And as understated as their acting is, magic happens when they start to sing. Muscato’s ‘Maria’ is as good as I’ve ever heard in my life, as natural as breathing and then taken up to the heavens with a touch of wonder with his deeply expressive tenor. And Ivelisse’s thrilling soprano imbues ‘I Feel Pretty’ with just the right amount of character to refresh its familiar rhymes.
The emphasis on the emotional throughline is apparent everywhere. The choice to make ‘Gee Officer Krupke!’ a vaudeville number delivered in front of the curtain is inspired – as is a perfectly timed bit of spotlighting – a way to make sense of the trauma the Jets have just gone through. Michael Taylor’s design never lets you forget the poverty in which everyone here subsists, from the worn stars and stripes to the mounds of rubble onstage. And there’s a clever nuance to the characterisation within the Jets, Ryan Anderson, Dale White, Alex Christian, Isaac Gryn and Michael O’Reilly all impressive in their own way. Far from a homogenous group there’s a real sense of varying personalities and commitment to the cause, never clearer than the diverse responses to the attempted sexual assault of Anita – Carly Mercedes Dyer in scorchingly good form in what ought to be a breakout year for her.
Making the heaven of ‘Somewhere’ a return to the dance where they first met is another powerfully effective move, not least because we get to see the wonderful choreography once again. It’s a reminder of the headlong rush that has pushed everyone to where they are now, from the romance to the rumble, and the use of the Curve’s youth team to fill the stage really pays off. It’s typical of Foster’s production in the way that shows he really cares about the way he tells this story. The only slight mis-step I can identify would be the army of bridal mannequins that descend from the sky in ‘One Hand One Heart’ as they look a bit too much like cousins to Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels. George Dyer’s supple musical direction keeps the orchestra punchy and fresh, Guy Hoare’s lighting work maintains an ominous shadow, and did I mention how good Ellen Kane’s choreography is? Book now, you won’t regret it (and you may even see me there again).