Review: West Side Story is a timeless masterpiece

West Side Story
West Side Story

By Alan Wooding

It was back in 1962 when I first watched Maria and Tony burst onto my local cinema screen and, as an impressionable 16-year-old, I was hooked.

West Side Story was actually the first proper musical that I’d ever seen – that’s ignoring Elvis and Cliff’s earlier cinematic efforts – and while the film may have long passed into the Hollywood archives, the stage show has stood the test of time and today it’s as fresh as ever.

Having just played a sell-out season at London’s Sadlers Wells theatre and following international critical acclaim, West Side Story is now enjoying success in Milton Keynes. It actually opened on Tuesday for an 11-day run to rapturous applause and with six matinees planned, there’s certainly no excuse for missing it.

The 1961 film based on the 1957 Broadway stage musical, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and it picked up 10 which today is still more than any other musical in history.

I’m convinced that Britain’s bard William Shakespeare would be delighted to see his reworked Romeo and Juliet still being performed, albeit in a slightly different manner on the stage in the 21st Century.

While Shakespeare’s Montague and Capulet families are substituted by rival New York street gangs, the Jets from the Upper West Side and the Puerto Rican immigrant-based Sharks, it’s in one of the show’s early routines that pretty teenager Maria and ex-Jet Tony’s eyes first meet across a crowded dance floor.

There’s plenty of emotion and a truly sensitive performance from Maria (Katie Hall) although Tony (Louis Maskell) seemed slightly wooden in his acting. However they both sing Stephen Sondheim’s timeless lyrics in Tonight, Maria and One Hand, One Heart beautifully while Leonard Bernstein’s infectious score is one of the best ever written for theatre.

Jack Wilcox (Singin’ in the Rain and Wicked) was great as Riff, the cocky leader of the Jets. They open the show patrolling ‘his’ patch while snapping their fingers to Bernstein’s bluesy beat. Wilcox and the Jets’ sensational Cool number ends in a dazzling choreographed routine.

As for the Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (Javier Cid), they are equally talented when it comes to slick dance routines.

However I particularly loved listening to Katie (Maria). She was a contestant in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a Nancy in the ‘I’d Do Anything’ television programme and she certainly has an incredible vocal range.

Having recently played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera both in London and on the show’s nationwide tour (and that included Milton Keynes), there was certainly a lump in my throat as she dramatically collapses over Tony’s dying body in the final scene – just as the late, great Natalie Wood had done in the film.

But forgetting the serious side, West Side Story is also about fun and that comes in the Gee, Officer Krupke number. Just forget the political correctness, this was a fabulous slapstick moment, the choreography was brilliant while Sondheim’s lyrics had the whole audience laughing and applauding.

Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Djalenga Scott) and his sister Maria sing A Boy Like That / I have a Love in perfect harmony after they learn Tony has killed the Sharks leader.

All the dance routines are punchy, slick and sassy – and that includes the beautifully choreographed knife fight scene at the end of Act One in which both Riff and Bernando lie dead in the street. There’s also a great number featuring the Sharks females who sarcastically deliver the lyrics of America.

Playing the Jets and their girls were: Action (Matthew Hawksley), Baby John (Fraser Fraser), A-Rab (Bruce Aguilar-Rohan), Big Deal (Samuel Salter), Snow Boy (Scott Rayner), Diesel (Matthew Croke), Anybodys (Jessica Fiala), Graziella (Rachel Crocker), Velma (Fenia Tsikitikou), Pauline (Rachel Ensort) and Minnie (Danielle Cato).

Meanwhile Bernardo’s Puerto Ricans (they’re referred to as the PRs) are: Chino (Niko Wirachman), Pepe (Sergio Giacomelli), Anxious (Sergi Terns), Nibbles (Devon McKenzie Smith), Indio (Nathan Ryles), Moose (Liam Paul Jennings), Consuela (Sinead Kenny), Rosalia (Charlotte Baptie), Estella (Katie Singh), Francisca (Challyce Brogdon) and Teresita (Nicola Coates). Meanwhile cafe owner Doc was played by David Delve, Lieutenant Schrank by Jason Grifiths and Officer Krupke by Sion Tudor Owen.

There’s a clever set which features a series of balconies from two towering Manhattan Apartment blocks … and there are plenty of ladders and escapes routes. There is also a huge backdrop of vintage black and white city street photographs (including the Empire State Building) which helps enhance the staging. Also excellent were the show’s live 17-piece orchestra under the direction of conductor Jamie Dunsmore although at times they tended to overpower some of the voices.

However it’s the energy and quality of the dance – from contemporary, cha cha, modern and classical ballet – which is quite remarkably in a show that’s more than half a century old and the production is directed by Joey McKneely who uses the full original Jerome Robbins choreography ... and it’s still a show stopper!

It’s a show that leaves you wanting more and with songs like There’s a Place for Us, I Feel Pretty, Tonight and Somewhere ringing in my head as I left the theatre, I felt I should be flagging down a yellow cab to go home in instead of heading to my own vehicle in the John Lewis’ car park.

West Side Story runs for two hours 10 minutes and plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, June 14 with tickets priced between £17.90 to £53.40 (a £2.85 booking fee applies) and they are available from the theatre box office on 08448 717652 or on-line at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes