‘An unmistakeable freshness that is just beautiful to watch’: WEST SIDE STORY – Manchester

In Musicals, Opinion, Regional theatre, Reviews by Ian FosterLeave a Comment

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – until 25 May 2019

For an undoubted classic of the musical theatre, West Side Story really isn’t revived all that often but 2019 seems determined to rectify that. The Curve have announced it as their Christmas show, Ivo van Hove is reimagining it on Broadway, and Steven Spielberg is remaking the film for good measure. But getting the (beautifully balletic) jump on all of them is Manchester’s Royal Exchange, whose revival is the first to be performed with new choreography replacing the iconic moves of original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

And only naturally, Sarah Frankcom’s production soars when it puts Aletta Collins’ new moves front and centre. They are certainly recognisably inspired by Robbins but there’s an unmistakeable freshness that is just beautiful to watch and there’s something great about the fact they’re all doing it in Converse. The repeated ronds de jambe are iconic in their own way, an emotional grace is suffused throughout, and hints of contemporary nod to the physicality of two warring gangs, coiled bodies poised on Anna Fleischle’s climbing frame design. Fleischle has also maximised the floor space of the Exchange to great effect, the aesthetic is pure dance and it works.

Emphasising the youth of its leads, the central pair are cast well. As Maria, Gabriela Garcia has the kind of gorgeous sweet and open smile that you could imagine would bring about racial harmony in and of itself. And there’s no doubting Andy Coxon’s appeal as the genial Tony and together, they make a more than decent fist of the vocal challenges of Bernstein’s score (they don’t write ’em like this with proper soprano roles any more). ‘Tonight’ is blissful, their extended farewell supremely cute, ‘One Hand One Heart’ a dream of spine-tingling potential.

Jocasta Almgill storms it as the ferociously passionate Anita. Her chemistry with Fernando Mariano’s Bernardo is off the scale and her affectionate takedown of her homeland in ‘America’ is superb, delivered here to Bree Smith’s Rosalia as opposed to the film’s reworked boys vs girls dynamic. Emily Langham’s small but crucial interventions as Anybodys shine throughout, particularly in the hushed beauty of ‘Somewhere’ and in a company full of exceptional movement, Michael Lin was a real stand-out for me. Credit too to MD Mark Aspinall whose top-notch band deliver Jason Carr’s new orchestrations with real skill.

If I’m being brutally honest though, there is something about the second act which is a little difficult. As heady as teenage love can be, Maria forgiving her brother’s killer so easily and not only that, convincing Anita of her cause too, still feels a tough sell to me (she’s known him, what 48 hours at most?). And the Jets delivering the knockabout comedy of ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ on the spot where their leader was just killed is odd (as much a problem of the placing of the song in the show, I think). A comment on the mindless stupidness of boys in gangs perhaps, it doesn’t carry anywhere near enough anger to be a true anti-authority anthem.

I’m being picky though, for there is much to enjoy and to really appreciate here, not least the musical majesty of ‘Quintet’ and the dancing, oh, the dancing!

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Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."
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Ian Foster on FacebookIan Foster on RssIan Foster on Twitter
Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."

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