The 1950s was the golden age of the Broadway musical. Yet how relevant today are the plots of The King and I, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music? Fifty years after it’s Broadway premiere, West Side Story is as fresh, daring and shocking as ever. After all it’s packed full of racial hatred, knife crime and gang rape: what on Earth would Maria Von Trapp think?
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is transferred to New York’s Upper West Side; the Montagues and Capulets replaced with rival Polish Catholic and Puerto-Rican gangs. Tony – the co-founder of the ‘Jets’ - falls in love with Maria, whose brother Bernardo (as luck would have it) leads the rival ‘Sharks’. Bloodshed predictably ensues.
However, although the audience know exactly what’s going to happen, there are gasps and tears across the auditorium. Credit for this lies in Leonard Bernstein’s legendary score which benefits from an 18-piece band, particularly the evocative percussion of Tim Gunnell and James O’Carroll. Stephen Sondheim was in his twenties when he got his big break from writing these eloquent, hilarious and often touching lyrics.
Joey McKneely faithfully recreates Jerome Robbins’ deliciously inventive, soaringly balletic, and relentlessly challenging choreography. At times the precision of the chorus seems lacking, yet their breathless enthusiasm, especially in “Gee, Officer Krupke” wins us over. Paul Gallis’ set is versatile, yet its relentless movement and the accompanying noise disturbs rather than frames the action. Peter Halbsgut’s dramatic lighting wisely attempts to distract us from these faults.
Daniel Koek may be too old and physically tentative to fully convince as Tony, the teenage heartthrob and gang-leader, yet he hits the high notes with an astonishing confidence and clarity rarely found on national tours. His Maria (Sofia Escobar) ticks the necessary boxes of childish exuberance and gorgeous innocence. But it is Jayde Westaby who blazes as the red-blooded Anita, effortlessly bringing the witty verbal tussle of “America” to life.
There may be shortcomings in this production, but as one of the most celebrated musicals in history, West Side Story is always worth a visit.