Friday 29 November 2019

West Side Story

Curve, Leicester
28th November 2019

“You make this world lousy –
- It was like this when we got here”

Following a couple of very festive seasonal productions in 2017 (Scrooge: The Musical) and 2018 (White Christmas – now playing a limited run in the West End), Curve have changed tempo for this year’s Christmas treat with Nikolai Foster’s epic new production of Bernstein’s West Side Story. While it’s not the cheeriest of musicals for the Holiday season the production homes in on the persistently significant topics of immigration, racism, gang warfare and the disenfranchised youth. So, considering we have a general election just round the corner, you could say that, despite the lack of festive cheer, Curve’s programming has proven to be the perfect finale to a politically charged 2019.

The familiar tale of star-crossed lovers is given fresh bite, with Foster placing a particular focus on the futility and brutalism consequential to the subjugation of large sections of society. Maria, Anita, Bernardo and co. arrive in the Upper West Side of New York City against a backdrop of tattered stars and stripes and are welcomed with unfettered hostility from the Polish-American Jets. A large garbage pile looms over our (anti)heroes. We are placed amidst a neighbourhood of detritus – the forgotten masses left to fend for themselves. The ensuing turf wars are somewhat inevitable, as the sole authority figures in the piece, Schrank (Darren Bennett) and Officer Krupke (Christopher Wright), are shown to be bigoted crooks, stoking the flames of hatred. Michael Taylor’s set – bar a few minor sightline issues with the upper storeys– provides an atmospheric and suitably grubby playground for the action. A huge concrete and iron tower conveys the claustrophobic sense of families – communities – living on top of each other, crammed into a city fraught with yearnings for prosperity.

Ellen Kane retains the fluidity and exuberance of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography while introducing a flair of her own, imbuing the routines with punch and machismo. In blissful contrast to the more vigorous numbers (eg. ‘Cool’ and the dance at the gym) , Kane’s choreography for Tony and Maria is beautifully simple. Their first meeting demonstrates the lilting magnetism between the two characters; their stillness a bright beacon amid the frantic, competitive strutting of their fellow Jets and Sharks.

Bernstein’s score is given the full orchestral treatment and rightfully shines. There’s a reason that so many of the songs from West Side Story have become standards – I still marvel at Bernstein’s menacing horns and irregular beats, which, coupled with Sondheim’s extraordinary lyrical wit, are the epitome of musical theatre class. There’s not a dud number in the entire show, but standouts include Jamie Muscato’s soulful rendition of ‘Maria’ and an ecstatic and timeless ‘America’ – minimal staging, three performers, Kane’s energetic choreography, and a rousing song prove that crowd-pleasers needn’t rely on large-scale spectacle.

I also commend Foster for his neat take of my favourite number in the score, the show-stopping ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. Placing the remaining Jet’s whimsical rebuke of the ‘system’ within a vaudevillian arena offsets the structural complexities resulting from having such an upbeat song feature in the aftermath of the fatal rumble. It also paves the way for some nice comedic staging which underpins Sondheim’s razor-sharp satirical lyrics. As the ensemble of wide-eyed young men tramp and play the fool, a sense of desperation emanates from the stage, despite the outward display of ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ bravado. Foster’s production demands we acknowledge these characters for what they are: naïve kids, let down by a society that places ultimate emphasis on the self. That’s why the refrain from ‘Somewhere’ resonates so deeply; the stress is not on the individual, but the collective – ‘we’, ‘us’ – and Kane’s dream ballet sequence, in which the stage brims with an amplified cast of young people dancing, hugging and smiling together, is a utopian depiction of what could be. That is, until the dream dissipates and Tony and Maria are, in fact, alone; isolated upon a bare stage.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Jamie Muscato’s likeable Tony leading the young cast. However, the stars for me are Adriana Ivelisse and Carly Mercedes Dyer as Maria and Anita, respectively. Ivelisse’s Maria is utterly charming, her smile lights up the room, and she radiates with sweetness and childlike mischief. In contrast, Dyer’s unbridled spirit is unleashed in her tour-de-force performance of ‘America’. Dyer’s Anita is warm, brazen, but brittle, and when she finally breaks the consequences are heart-wrenching.

Foster and co. have wrung the musical for every last drop of emotion, intellect and topicality. West Side Story has been given the full blooded revival it merits and I would love to see this production have further life beyond this initial run.

West Side Story plays at Curve until 11th January 2020.
Jamie Muscato and Adriana Ivelisse in West Side Story.
Credit: Ellie Kurttz.

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