West Side Story
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester ★★★✩✩
WITH a new Broadway production and Steven Spielberg film in the pipeline, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s tale of star-crossed lovers is having another of its periodic moments — as indeed it should. With classic musical numbers such as Maria, America and I Feel Pretty — allied to a Romeo and Juliet storyline and set amid warring 1950s Manhattan gangs — it’s basically bulletproof, somehow both feel-good and feel-incredibly-bad.
In a twist, Jerome Robbins’s famous original choreography has been replaced for the first time in Sarah Frankcom’s vivacious version for the Royal Exchange. It’s not entirely a surprise, given it’s performed in the round, but choreographer Aletta Collins finds a vibrant pace and rhythm all of her own, especially in big fight and dance scenes.
Andy Coxon and Gabriela Garcia are also just about perfect as Tony and Maria, the doomed lovers on either side of the gang divide. Garcia makes the leap between girlishly innocent ditties and passionate operatics with some skill.
There’s a hugely likeable performance from Jocasta Almgill too, as her larger-than-life confidante Anita.
In fact, the easy charm of almost every Jet or Shark makes a bit of a mockery of Frankcom’s idea that the inner city knife crime in West Side Story is ‘horrifyingly topical’.
Yes, we know it will all lead to tragedy. But boys having a laugh about gang war to a backdrop of jaunty music feels a bit odd, and it’s slightly anachronistic in 2019.
So it’s probably best just to enjoy the production for what it is — not the most famous West Side Story revival this year but certainly the freshest.