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.