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West Side Story

Published 9 August 2013

It is tragic that West Side Story feels so very contemporary more than 50 years after it premiered. That’s without counting back to when choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents began working on the show that has been voted one of the greatest musicals of all time.

Yet contemporary it certainly is with its tale of gang warfare on the streets of New York, racial tension and a lost generation with nothing better to do than pick fights. Swap the location and the gangs in questions and it could be Britain today.

Of course, that would make some of the songs and music feel a touch incongruous. The famous, witty  America would be strangely out of place if the setting were south east London, which would be a shame considering the lively rendition given in Joey McKneely’s production, which was first brought to Sadler’s Wells in 2008 to mark the musical’s 50th anniversary.

It was so successful then that it’s back, and in Liam Tobin it has a Tony whose treacle rich tones force you to sit up and pay attention before you lose yourself in their melodic depths. Similarly his Maria, Elena Sancho-Pereg, hits operatic highs as the Puerto Rican new arrival who falls for distinctly the wrong man in Tony, co-founder of the Jets, the rival gang to her brother Bernardo’s Sharks.

The two roles, by the way, are such testing sings that they’re double cast, Anthony Festa sharing Tony with Tobin and Jessica Soza balancing Maria duties with Sancho-Pereg.

Where these attention-seizing voices lead, the show’s most compelling drama follows. United they bubble over with the fervour of young love, like champagne loosed from its bottle. Separated by fate, prejudice and rash choices their desolation is palpable.

Half a century after they were first sung, West Side Story’s songs have become standards. Maybe having heard them rolled out across talent shows and concerts I’d become complacent, for here they are full of renewed life and emotion. A heavenly Somewhere feels like an earnest prayer for a better life, Maria soars with newly discovered love and Gee, Officer Krupke, with lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s satirising of the explanation for disaffected youth, could have been written yesterday.

It still shocks too. The final fate of Anita, so feisty, spirit-filled and witty in the hands of Penelope Armstead-Williams, sickens and revolts, so powerfully is it played.

If anything feels dated about the production, it is sections of Robbins’ choreography, though I suspect I’m in the minority for not being in love with it. At its best it still, literally, packs a punch.

I must confess, I stepped inside Sadler’s Wells as one of the few people for whom West Side Story would not have made it onto their greatest ever musicals list. This production, at once both classic and unerringly modern, changed that.

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