West Side Story was staged in the Summer by the National Youth Music Theatre - winning praise from critics and audiences. This was partly because the cast were acting their age. Often when Jerome Robbins' classic piece is staged, the cast do look too old and it can jar slightly.
No such problems here with this excellent production, as the vibrancy and epic feel sweeps you away and leaves you feeling quite breathless. Even though the denouement and poignant ending is well known, it still manages to shock here, thanks to a talented cast and dynamic direction.
Tony and Maria meet and fall in love. Arthur Laurents' book is an update of Romeo and Juliet with the songs of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins' amazing choreography (reproduced here by Joey McKneely). As a show, it never fails to leave audiences moved beyond belief. But there is so much comedy too. Gee, Officer Krupke is perfectly timed as it follows some particularly poignant moments. This sequence is incredibly well performed by an athletic cast and works perfectly at bringing the audiences back down to earth.
As Maria, Katie Hall has the most beautiful voice. She has proven her versatility in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. Here, she conveys the lovestruck feelings of her character with ease. Louis Maskell is stoic and powerful, yet nicely playful as Tony. His vocal delivery is is superb as it creeps up on you and he is unafraid to hold back until he needs to hit the high notes. He acts as if Tony is drunk on love and this works wonderfully well.
Djalenga Scott is feisty, yet fragile as Anita. This is a tough role as you have to like her also. But Scott nails it, as she brings out the humour also, particularly during the brilliantly funny America. Javier Cid's Bernado is strong and pig-headed which makes a change from the usual camp portrayals. You believe that he could win a rumble. Likewise Jack Wilcox's Riff is a born fighter.
The ensemble and swings cover the stage and bring style and grace. They all rise to the challenge of the exhausting choreography and make it look effortless. The orchestra provide crisp and clear music and during the stunning dance sequences, it's 'music to watch girls go by' - it's beautiful.
The themes of gang culture, stepping onto each other's patch and mindless killing remains as relevant now, as it ever did. As do the wonderfully evocative songs of Sondheim and Bernstein. "Somewhere" and "Maria" still have the power to make you misty-eyed.
If you long for something classy, and an alternative to the usual Festive fare, Joey McKneely's West Side Story ticks all the boxes and then some.
West Side Story is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until 4 January.