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Review Round-up: West Side a Winner 50 Years On?

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Viewed by many as the musical that “changed the face of musical theatre forever”, The Broadway Classic West Side Story celebrates its 50th birthday this year. The authorised anniversary production opened at Sadler\'s Wells last night (24 July, previews from 22 July), where it continues until 31 August (See Today’s 1st Night Photos). It then embarks on an extensive UK tour, with dates currently confirmed through to 11 July 2009.

In the gangland New York reworking of Shakespeare\'s Romeo and Juliet, Tony, founder of the native Jets, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Puerto Rican Sharks\' leader. The two young lovers are swiftly caught up in a vicious battle between the opposing sides. The musical features a now-classic score with songs such as \"America\", \"Somewhere\", \"Officer Krupke\", \"I Feel Pretty\", \"Tonight\" and \"Maria\".

West Side Story has a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 50th anniversary revival, as with all professional productions since the 1957 Broadway premiere, is based on the original direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins. It’s directed by Joey McKneely and designed by Paul Gallis, with costumes by Renate Schmitzer, sound by Rick Clarke, lighting by Peter Halbsgut and musical supervision by Donald Chan.

At fifty years old, West Side Story managed to impress the overnight critics who were in agreement that not only is the anniversary production “beautiful to behold” but also socially relevant, carrying a “stinging, contemporary resonance” in the light of recent knife crime statistics. There was much praise for Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics which were felt to combine to create “the greatest Broadway musical of all time”. However, several critics commented that aspects of the production seem “woefully dated” and “a little too cosy”, lacking any real grit and leaving audiences looking for “more roughness and passion”. The cast received a generally positive reception, and although no performers seemed to stand out above the rest, Sofia Escobar’s Maria was praised widely.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “The authorised fiftieth anniversary production of West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells, embarking on a national tour in September, is beautiful to behold and full of colour and vivacity. It’s just a bit anodyne, and nobody in the cast really sounds or looks like a troubled teenager in a deprived area on the Upper West Side of New York either then or now. I’ve always assumed West Side Story to be the greatest American musical, but now I’m not so sure. The music of Leonard Bernstein is the outstanding element, but there’s not enough of it. The book of Arthur Laurents is fine but not as good as his book for Gypsy. The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim proclaim genius but also have their soppy side. The choreography of Jerome Robbins, dutifully reproduced by Joey McKneely, is marvelous, but lacking in street credibility and new moves; it’s woefully dated … The big gaps in the scoring are not here filled in with attentive acting or real threat and danger ... A definitive revival of this piece is long overdue. In the mean time, the band under the musical direction of Donald Chan is better than average, but not much, and the Maria of Sofia Escobar sounds the most touching and persuasive dramatic points of the evening. Ryan Silverman is a fairly butch Tony – well, fairly butch compared to the rest of his gang – and Marco Santiago a devilishly doomed Bernardo ... The show is professionally honoured in the performance, but not transformed into the explosive celebration we expected.”
    • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (four stars) – “Fifty years young and still staking a genuine claim to be the greatest Broadway musical of all time, West Side Story arrives in London for a UK tour at a time when there\'s been a rash of Romeo and Juliets like a bad outbreak of the measles … Like many, I wondered whether Robbins\' choreography would have stood the test of time. In fact Robbins\' dance sequences make most West End choreography look anaemic. If anything it is Joey McKneely\'s ruthlessly efficient but rather soulless production with its clumsy set design that needs a makeover to give the show the aesthetic and emotional support it demands. If Paul Gallis\' ugly design would just stop moving around quite so distractingly then perhaps the show\'s genuine emotional power would shine through unhindered. Sofia Escobaras\' Maria certainly does shine, exuding the luminosity of a girl in love as if she has an electric lightbulb switched on right inside her chest. Ryan Silverman\'s Tony is less charismatic but he sings sweetly, and there is good support from Lana Gordon as the fiery Anita, torn between her cultural roots and her recognition that Maria and Tony\'s love is the real thing. The final headlong rush to disaster is as much her tragedy too. This production may be a little too cosy to quite be the real thing, but even its deficiencies can\'t disguise the fact that this show is one of the towering achievements of musical theatre of the last century.”
    • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (four stars) – \"…The current revival, directed by Joey McKneely, is, inevitably, less shocking than the original, but it is hardly lacking in excitement. The show suffers, of course, from the increasing vulgarity and knowingness of all culture, not just that of the slums, but even 50 years ago West Side Story made considerable concessions to gentility and pragmatism. One\'s suspension of disbelief really takes the strain now, from actors about 10 years older than present-day gang members who speak chastely and intelligibly and a ‘hoodlum’ who dresses better than David Cameron on his day off. Magnificent as Leonard Bernstein\'s score still is, it contributes to the slightly dated feel in its most effort-fully hip number, ‘Cool’ … Reproducing Robbins\'s choreography, McKneely has drilled dancers who imply plenty of violence and who make the murderous rumble look horribly realistic … On the press night, Ryan Silvermann\'s Tony showed off a powerful and eloquent voice, Sofia Escobar\'s Maria an enchanting one, and both were charming in their intimate moments. Both, however, could have done with some more roughness and passion, qualities that Marco Santiago\'s deadly Bernardo has in abundance. As the sensuous and anguished Anita, Lana Gordon, though an excellent dancer, mistakes volume for emotion and needs more warmth to balance her anger ... All things considered, though, this revival is both an excellent introduction and a welcome reminder of this classic with a rich, full sound and a great, full heart.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “What a stinging, contemporary resonance there is to Leonard Bernstein\'s classic Fifties musical in which the knife and gun do their fatal damage to Jets and the Sharks, young, rival gangsters in New York. West Side Story speaks and sings its alarming story of gangland love and feuding to a London in the grip of its knife epidemic far more urgently than it did in 1958. Joey McKneely\'s fine, 50th anniversary production conveys just the right atmosphere of sizzling aggression, while the orchestra under Donald Chan\'s direction ensures the musical never loses its tense momentum … The early scenes, in which the Jets and Sharks communicate their mutual hatred through dancing, bristles with balletic elegance, neatness and restraint rather than anything more dangerous. Yet under a highway overpass, when knives are for the first time drawn, a shocking dance to the death is arranged. And the Jets\' rape of Lana Gordon\'s vivacious, smouldering Anita, Bernardo\'s girlfriend, similarly exploits dance in modes of high menace ... Not all the lead gangsters are quite threatening enough, though John Arthur Greene\'s Action fairly sizzles with rage, while Marco Santiago\'s Bernardo looks a dangerous customer. And even if Silverman\'s Tony looks a bit mature he sings with a rare power and passion for Sophia Escobar\'s bewitched and bothered Maria. It\'s a fabulous, emotionally power-packed revival, with a social-political punch.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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