BWW Reviews: WEST SIDE STORY, Bristol Hippodrome, January 29 2014
I will probably be thrown into the darkest depths of Musical Theatre Purgatory for saying this, but...West Side Story has never been a favourite of mine. However, bear with me. I vaguely remember watching the film in my early years of secondary school, and wasn't particularly enamoured by it, so it was with mixed feelings of uncertainty and curiosity that I headed over to the Bristol Hippodrome to see the show on stage for the first time.
For those who don't know the story, West Side Story is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, and follows the lives of two rival gangs in 1950s New York: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Polish-American Jets. It tells the tale of star-crossed lovers Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, younger sister of Shark leader Bernardo. The two meet at a city dance, and it is clear from the start that the pairing is doomed, with the intense rivalry between the two gangs only increasing as time passes.
The audience is first drawn into the lives of the street gangs by the imposing presence of the run-down, three-storey-high set, which, in stark contrast with the creative use of projections depicting the majestic buildings of central New York, provides a gritty insight into the harsh reality of the lives of our protagonists. Switching between dingily sombre and exuberantly bright, the lighting in this show plays a big part in setting the mood of the piece throughout.
However, what truly brings West Side Story to life - and what was undoubtedly the best aspect of the evening for me - is the choreography. Creative, energetic and impactful, the dance numbers were reproduced from the original by Joey McKneely. Right from the start, the intricacy of the choreography had me hooked, with the cast members striking the perfect balance between strength and machismo during the balletic fight scene. This trend did not subside as the show went on, and the dancers held both my attention and my respect as they showed their emotional and physical abilities in pieces ranging from the vivacious 'America' to the heartfelt, heavenly 'Somewhere'. In my opinion, the dancing and choreography is worth the price of a ticket alone.
As ill-fated teenagers Tony and Maria, Louis Maskell and Katie Hall made an endearing, peaceful couple. Both gave charming renditions of some of Leonard Bernstein's best-loved songs, including 'Maria' and 'Tonight', bringing Sondheim's lyrics to life. However, I must say that I struggled to believe that Tony was once a tough gang member, as I felt that Maskell lacked a certain edge or spark that, like it or not, even a reformed Jet would exude. I think it was this, combined with the initially slow pace of the show, that niggled at me throughout the first act and prevented me from being completely engaged with the characters and their story. Having said that, I felt that both leads really came into their own in the second act, expressing a greater emotional range and embracing the grittier side of the piece.
For me, the stand-out performance of the evening was undoubtedly given by Djalenga Scott as determined, passionate Anita. The voice of reason throughout much of the show, Scott's Anita was at times strong, funny and heartbreaking, and it was often during her scenes where I completely forgot where I was, and became entirely absorbed in the story. Her duet with Hall, 'A Boy Like That/I Have A Love', was simply stunning, and felt like a true rollercoaster of emotion.
Two final mentions go to Jack Wilcox, who was entirely convincing as Riff, the strong and well-respected leader of the Jets, and Javier Cid as hot-headEd Bernardo, leader of the Sharks and Maria's over-protective older brother.
Although West Side Story is still not my favourite musical, the production currently playing at the Bristol Hippodrome certainly packed an emotional punch, and I remain in awe of the choreography, the cast and the heart-breaking, ever-relevant story of hatred, love and loss. If you can get a ticket to this almost-sold-out run, then I would recommend you do so - West Side Story is not one to miss.
West Side Story is playing at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 8 February 2014.