One of the judgements that a reviewer has to make when approaching a student production of classic musical is how far it is appropriate to compare them to their professional counterparts. Student productions at the Oxford Playhouse are expected to be the crème de la crime of the available talent and so I feel it incumbent on me to hold them to a slightly higher standard than the average amateur group.
West Side Story is a notoriously demanding show – dramatically, vocally, orchestrally and choreographically, it requires great skill, effort and dedication to make it work.
The band, under the assured direction of Tom Brady, is one of the stars of the production. Although they occasionally lack a certain raw authenticity, overall they play the complex score with enormous verve, vitality and passion. A real achievement and one that should be celebrated.
The choreography by Emilie Holland stays very true to the original – both in terms of the steps and, more importantly, the spirit of the work. The cast have clearly been working for many weeks on the dance elements of the show and their commitment is to be applauded.
All of the principal roles require exceptional singers. Genevieve Dawson (Anita) is the vocal star of the production. She inhabits her role completely – carrying the accent through the dialogue into the sung word with absolute assurance. Her colleagues, though far from poor, are always somewhat eclipsed.
Acting plaudits are shared between Emma Pearce (Maria) who brings more life to her character than one would normally expect and Chris Greenwood (Riff) – every line, gesture and lyric was used to maximum effect in a very polished portrayal of the young gang leader.
I must question the director’s decision to cut the ballet sequence from the second act. This seriously unbalanced the dramatic flow of the action and left me feeling somewhat cheated. Upsetting the structure of such a carefully constructed work is a risk and I do feel that the evening suffered slightly as a result. Also there could have been a greater connection between the performers during the musical numbers – particularly in the duets, where the lack of interaction really showed.
Is this a perfect production of Bernstein’s greatest achievement? No. Should we expect it to be? No. The student team are to be applauded for their ambition and their achievement. They took on a classic and have produced a very creditable piece of music theatre. You will have to join the return lines for tickets – you may just be lucky.