Tag Archives: Leonard Bernstein

Gang Show

WEST SIDE STORY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 29th August, 2019

 

For the first time in its illustrious 120-year history, Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre is producing its own youth-group musical.  The Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece is an ambitious choice but it is soon clear that the cast of 40+ young people is more than up for the challenge.

Director-choreographer Matt Hawksworth harnesses the abundance of talent so that it showcases the considerable strengths of the performers, while ensuring creative decisions keep the power of the material to the fore.  It does get off to a bit of a bitty start, though, with some pre-show milling around while the audience comes in, when a clean opening would have more impact, but once the show gets properly underway, and the action is properly focussed, it’s a compelling, emotional piece of theatre.

Matthew Pandya makes an impact as Jets-leader Riff, brimming with attitude.  Fellow gang member Action (Brook Jenkins) comes into his own for Gee Officer Krupke.  In the Sharks, Gibsa Bah is an imposing Bernardo, with Carter Smith on good form as his lieutenant Chino.

Ruby Hewitt’s Anita is remarkable: humorous, sassy, worldly, warm-hearted, vulnerable, in a hugely satisfying portrayal.  There is also some fine character work from Hannah Swingler as drugstore proprietor Doc, despairing at the conduct of the hoodlums.

The show, of course, pivots on its main couple.  Kamilla Fernandes is a knock-out as Maria, going from sweetness and innocence to embittered fury and emotional devastation by the conclusion of the story’s tragic events.  Her scenes with Hewitt’s Anita are where the dialogue really comes to life.  At other points, the quickfire lines of Arthur Laurents’s arcane slang, get a bit lost, especially in large group scenes: the acting needs to be as taut as the singing and the choreography.

The evening belongs, though, to an absolutely stellar performance from sixteen-year-old Alex Cook as Tony.  His two big solos in the first act are goosebump-inducing marvels, as Cook demonstrates perfect control of his voice and his thorough understanding of the character’s mind.  The skill on display is staggering, and the emotional punch of the playing earns him a round of applause that stops the show.

What comes across as much as the talent and energy of the cast, is the power of the material.  Shakespeare’s plot, translated to 1950s New York, is rife with issues still prevalent to this day: knife crime, the disaffection of youth, divisions in society, anti-immigrant prejudices… and the sumptuous score of Leonard Bernstein coupled with the wit and mastery of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, reminding us why West Side Story is one of the greatest musicals of all time.   An excellent choice, yielding a potent production.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 120 years for the next one.

Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cooke Credit Olivia Ahmadi

Two stars are born: Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cook (Photo: Olivia Ahmadi)


Working the Crowd

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!

west side


Fisher Queen

WONDERFUL TOWN
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 22nd May, 2012

This lesser-known Leonard Bernstein musical from 1953 left me wondering why it isn’t staged more often. Teeming with life, funny characters and catchy melodies, it tells the story of Ruth and Eileen, sisters who leave their home town of Columbus, Ohio to seek their fortunes in New York City. They rent a basement flat in Greenwich Village and are immediately mistaken for a pair of hookers. Eventually, they sort out their employment issues (Ruth as a writer; Eileen as an actor) and their romantic entanglements.

What struck me was the tone of the piece. It is neither saccharine nor salacious. It strikes the perfect balance between sweet and saucy and there is not a trace of cynicism in the entire show. It seems to suggest that the American Dream is dead. New York is full of people whose ambitions and aspirations have been thwarted. This theme is encapsulated by the song What A Waste which tells of writers, artists, musicians, actors who have all found the streets of NYC are not paved with golden opportunities. But, being a musical comedy, it doesn’t leave matters standing like that. If you don’t give up on your hopes and aspirations, and keep plugging away, all will come good. After some confusions and false starts, the sisters achieve their goals and all ends happily.

As Ruth, Connie Fisher establishes herself beyond all doubt as a character actor and more than a rent-a-Maria. She gets the snappiest one-liners and demonstrates an aptitude for physical comedy. Her voice seems to be in a lower register and it suits her. Her scene with a bunch of Brazilian sailors obsessed with dancing the Conga was a definite highlight for me. I can easily imagine her as the next Fanny Brice.

She is matched by Lucy van Gasse as man-magnet Eileen. This blonde soprano charms men merely by existing. Suitors fall over themselves to be near her. Before long, the Irish – sorry, Oirish – contingent of the NYPD are fawning over her – the second act begins with a deliciously funny scene in the cop shop, just one of this show’s many moments that had the audience gasping in delight. Michael Xavier is a dashing Bob Baker with his rich voice and handsome face. Nic Greenshields is sweet as gentle giant Wreck, a footballer in training who has to provide his own cheerleading, and Sevan Stephen’s Bohemian landlord, Mr Appopolous, is a masterclass in comic playing.

Simon Higlett’s massive set is stylish and versatile, The vibrant score is melodious with a jazzy twist – you can detect a hint of West Side Story in the arrangement. These songs deserve to be standards. A Little Bit In Love is perfectly charming. Ohio is wistful, and beautifully harmonised by Fisher and van Gasse. Director Braham Murray keeps the pace swift and the surprises keep coming, but credit is due to the producers who had the good sense to revive this overlooked gem and bring it to a new audience.

I hope they now turn their attention to Funny Girl with Ms Fisher in the lead…