Review – West Side Story

Jan 30 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩   Compelling

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 29 Jan – Sat 2 Feb 2013
Review by Thom Dibdin

Gasps of astonishment echoed around the Church Hill Theatre on the opening night of Edinburgh University Footlight’s compelling and raw production of West Side Story.

Which is no mean feat in such a well known show – it happened on more than one occasion too. Those who don’t know the musical itself will surely be familiar with its source material of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The Sharks goading the Jets. L-R: Camilla Parkers, Ewan Mood, Olivier Huband, Finlay Macaulay, Georgie Sheppard and Alex Poole. Pic: David Monteith-Hodge

In West Side Story the Montague-Capulet conflict of “fair” Verona is transformed into one between two youth gangs in a poverty stricken area of 1950s New York. The Jets are first-generation Polish American immigrants and the Sharks are the more recently arrived Puerto Rican’s.

Brokering peace – of a sort – are NYPD’s finest: scrawny Detective Schrank and his best man, the flat-footed Officer Krupke. With those two pouring oil on the troubled waters tragedy is bound to endure.

Arthur Laurents’s book finds Tony (Michael Sawaryn) growing just a little bit too old to be fully committed to the gang culture. He’s finding out that there’s more to life than hanging out with his pals in the Jets. Meanwhile, Maria (Claire Saunders) is fresh over from Puerto Rico and longing for her brother Bernardo (Alex Poole), leader of the Sharks, to let her go out to a dance.

Under the directorial guidance of Roxy Cook and choreographic input from Aniela Piasecka, Footlights get right to the scuzzy heart of the piece.

It starts from the rawness to Celia Dugua’s edgy set design which plays on the shadows of the dilapidated West Side. And the arrival of the two gangs – not overcrowding the stage in this slightly cut-down casting of 22 – gives an easy choreographic expression to their machismo and bristling energy.

It could be twee, but there is real athleticism to the dance itself – and when Frank Derrington as Riff, Tony’s best pal and leader of the Jets, takes to the stage alone, he is a strutting cock-of-the-walk, flexing his muscles in an arrogant challenge. Against him, Poole’s Bernardo is mean and feral, hiding a full-blooded sensuality underneath his disturbing exterior.

The real success of the whole opening number – with its famous finger-clicking introduction – is the way Piasecka has succeeded in drilling the performers to create two quite different, but ultimately similar, types of machismo.

Sensual, sexy and thoroughly full-blooded…

The girlfriends of the gangs continue that dichotomy in their dance and performances. Jess Barker takes the lead for the Sharks, as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, in a sensual, sexy and thoroughly full-blooded performance.

Claire Saunders is excellent as Maria. She has that slightly quizzical, head-on-one-side, birdlike quality to her movement – which gives Maria a real sense of the new, amidst her jaded friends. But it is when Saunders opens her mouth to sing that the magic happens. There is a real clarity to her voice – a perfectionist would have wished for bigger lungs which she hit her top note – but I just revelled in its brilliance.

Michael Sawaryn is quite the Romeo as Tony – his encapsulation of the befuddled teenager, practically swooning with emotion and blurting out “I love you” to Maria when they have hardly even met is spot on. He has a strong enough voice to reach up to Saunders, too – allowing their duets to really take off.

Against all the timeless plot, Bernstein’s jazzily operatic score fizzles with its own energy. Its motifs and developments reflect and enlarge upon the conflicts and resolutions of the plot.

And it is in the score that the production’s one difficulty lies. The orchestra are generally strong, and once they get into the big numbers they make the score come alive. It’s when Bernstein gets all picky and minimalist that it gets tough. Particularly in getting the balance between stage and pit.

It is fantastic to have a 30-strong orchestra there to give the score its worth, but it is a very tricky one to get right and there is a tendency for the pit to swamp the stage at crucial moments.

That said, it doesn’t detract from the overall effect of a production that captures the essence of a very well-known and much-loved piece, while breathing new life into it.

Running time 2 hours 40 mins.
Run ends Sat 2 February, 2013.
Church Hill Theatre, Morningside, Edinburgh.
Daily 7.30pm (Sat mat 2.30pm).
Tickets £12.50 (£8.50 concs, £6.50 students) from the XTS Pro website:
XTS Pro ticket holders should leave plenty of time to pick up their tickets before the performance.


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Comments (2)

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  1. Maria says:

    I loved it!