West Side Story’s one of those rare musicals that’s really seeped into the wider public consciousness. On top of some inspired cover versions of its biggest songs (including the Pet Shop Boys’ joyfully camp electro-disco-pop rebooting of Somewhere and frequent appearances of some of its other big numbers in episodes of Glee) it’s responsible for one of the USA’s unofficial theme tunes too, courtesy of America (you know the one, “I wanna be in America, la la la la la America”). As if that wasn’t enough it’s also a good old fashioned love story based on arguably the granddaddy of them all Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, replacing the Montagues and Capulets with the gritty street gangs the Jets and the Sharks and then setting the whole shebang in the hustling bustling Noo Yoik of the 1950s. That's real cool daddio.
There are no ‘big’ names in the current touring cast (apparently this applies to pretty much every stage version of West Side Story), which can sometimes be a bit of a blessing as it helps you to focus more on the characters rather than the stars playing them. That’s not to say that there aren’t some real stars in the making in this cast, in particular Charlotte Baptie who stepped in to play the lead role of Maria after Katie Hall fell ill. I know understudies are trained for this sort of thing but it must still be pretty nerve-wracking to have to step up at the last moment, especially on Press Night. She was quite brilliant throughout the show though, not putting a foot wrong (no mean feat given the pace of it all). It’s no surprise to learn that she has a background in opera too, a talent she used appropriately not giving it the full on glass breaking routine but delivering that extra oomph just at the right moments. Aside from the odd slip in his accent (hell, you try speaking Noo Yoik for 2 hours) the subject of Maria’s affections, Tony, was also expertly handled by Louis Maskell and the chemistry between the two was a steamy as a New York street in August. Ssssssssssssssizzlin’.
From the explosive opening number of When You’re A Jet right through to the ending (I won’t spoil the plot just in case you're one of the few people who don't know what happens...even though I did I still found it incredibly moving) the stage constantly fizzes with energy and colour.
Using the original blueprint created by choreographer Jerome Robbins (reproduced for this tour by Joey McKneely) the ensemble dance routines are groin splittingly good (just take a look at the photos), a fusion of ballet, Puerto Rican skirt swinging sass and the gangs’ rougher, tougher street style. Djalenga Scott as Anita, Maria’s sister, was particularly impressive kicking so high and vigorously that I feared one of her legs might fly clean off. She also wins the award for best accent of the night, ay ay ay, I’m assuming she’s not actually Puerto Rican? Kudos to the band too who managed to nail the big brassy numbers as well as the more intimate moments rather beautifully and a high five for the simple but effective set, replacing the balconies of Verona with the somewhat less romantic fire escapes of a New York tenement. Other highlights included Cool, Riff and the Jets were finger clickin’ good, and Act Two’s swishy opener I Feel Pretty was particularly fun, flirty and fresh. But let's be honest here, there's not a duff second in the whole show.
All in all it adds up to a dazzling version of one of the World’s best loved musicals by a cast and crew who’ve clearly put their heart and soul into it. Whatever you do just make sure you ‘Jet’ a ticket while you can...
West Side Story is on at New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 19th April. Tickets here!
(All photos by Alastair Muir)