WEST SIDE STORY
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 25th August, 2017
It is a firm fixture of the summer programme: the annual production by Stage Experience involving dozens (and dozens) of kids from the region – and every year I marvel at the process of staging a show of such high quality given a short rehearsal time any hardened professional would baulk at. This year it’s Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic reworking of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic tale of Tony and Maria who find love on opposite sides of some silly feud, here represented as gangland violence (translated into dance moves).
Elliot Gooch shines as Tony. Already distancing himself from his gang, The Jets, he finds his adolescent emotions sparked to both love and war as events unfold. Gooch is stunningly good. His rendition of ‘Maria’ is enough to raise goosebumps and would work anywhere as an audition piece. One tip I do have for him, speaking as a former teacher of theatre, is to watch his perfect enunciation of every letter in every word does not get in the way of characterisation.
He is matched by Grace Whyte’s rather operatic Maria. Her soprano is striking and expressive and furthermore, her Latino accent remains consistent and her passions are utterly credible.
Also excellent is Leah Vassell as Anita, who is more worldly-wise than Maria. Her musical numbers are highlights, whether she’s satirising life in America or pleading with Maria to stick to her own kind. She brings humour, and darker emotions after the murder of Bernardo (Javier Aguilera, who moves with easy grace).
Among the Jets, Jordan Ricketts’s Riff makes an impression (before his untimely end!) and also strong is Caven Rimmer as the hot-headed Action.
Once again director Pollyann Tanner has worked miracles. Her choreography fulfils our expectations of Hal Prince’s original moves and there is balletic beauty by the ton – a difficulty with having a company so large is giving each kid their time in the spotlight; at times, dance sequences look like an amorphous mass of heads and limbs, but when the dancers have space, you can see the skills at play. Every kid in every crowded corner is thoroughly disciplined and committed. The levels of focus are astonishing. Personally, I would have foregone the softening of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ by swamping the stage with what looks like a Persil advert and let the number have its bitter edge. The assault of Anita is all the more shocking from its stylised presentation, and the show loses none of its ultimate emotional impact when the tragedy reaches its conclusion.
Sadly, the show’s themes of anti-immigration feeling and knife crime still resonate today. The emotions are timeless but one would have liked society to have moved on from the racism displayed here. Perhaps, some day… somewhere…
A remarkable achievement by everyone concerned. My mind boggles to think of the logistics of it all but what matters most to an audience member is the effectiveness of the final product. Yet again, Stage Experience delivers the goods: an enthralling, entertaining and moving piece of theatre. Bravo!