West Side Story ***/*****

West Side Story is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century.  It fundamentally changed the way dance, design, music and story were used in performance and influenced and entertained generations of audiences.  Billed as the 50th Anniversary production, this tour of West Side is mostly intent on celebrating the musical’s glorious past.

Acting as a reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet, the story follows two rival New York gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, into a turf war that gets more complicated when ex-Jet Tony falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of the Shark’s leader.  Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will clearly see all of the plot parallels and know who each character is based on.

Director and choreographer Joey McKneely is a disciple of the great Jerome Robbins, who not only came up with the idea of West Side but also directed and choreographed it.  McKneely’s work here is more intent on re-creating Robbins original staging.  The problem with such a decision is this: work that was revolutionary 50 years ago looks dated, stale and occasionally clichéd now.  Concepts that had never been seen onstage when the play premiered are all but expected from modern musical direction, including complicated choreography and personalised chorus members.

Those looking for a ‘classic’ rendition will be heavily rewarded.  It is well designed, slickly staged and has a consistent cast who bring to theatrical life all of the well-known song and dance numbers.  There is a certain pleasure in seeing a famed production, and it will allow anyone who wants to revel in nostalgia ample opportunity.

However, those looking for a ‘fresh’ production will see this more as a relic, a travelling museum-like production that could easily pass as an excellent example of what Peter Brook called ‘deadly theatre’.  The production mostly feels ‘safe’, which is not a word that should ever be used in describing West Side.  Because it offers a quaint vision of working-class New York, there is little menace; it also contains some of the cleanest stabbings one is ever likely to see.

The cast uniformly have excellent voices and dance skills.  Sofia Escobar makes a rather heartbreaking Maria, and Oneika Phillips is able to balance Anita’s passionate and cheeky sides, especially in the audience-favourite ‘America’.  Dan Burton and Howard Jones both have solid performance skills but don’t really come across as leaders of rival gangs, and Daniel Koek sings all of Tony’s songs with excellence but is too nice to be viewed as an ex-thug (is it really too much to ask any production to cast a Tony who seems dangerous?).  This is actually a general note on the entire cast: they are all too clean-cut to be considered urban and streetwise.

West Side Story is an iconic musical that contains some of modern theatre’s most poignant moments and rightfully deserves its place in history.  It would just be nice to see a production that took the innovative spirit of its original creative team rather than attempted to recreate a vision staged over half a century ago.

This is the case with a current production now on Broadway, which has a much sharper edge to its directional concept and makes frequent use of Spanish.  It has received enthusiastic acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and it proves how modern the musical can be when done without rose-tinted nostalgia.  And like this production, it even uses McKneely’s choreography.

As for the star rating for this current production, it’s simple: five stars for those looking for a ‘classical’ production, three for those looking for a modern bite.

Playing in Edinburgh and Aberdeen in May 2009.  For further details, check the official website here.

Originally published through Onstage Scotland.

*Written in response to a performance at the Theatre Royal Glasgow in November 2008.

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