West Side Story

West Side Story – based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents

Tony – Ryan Silverman
Maria – Sofia Escobara
Anita – Lana Gordon
Bernardo – Marco Santiago
Riff – Leo Ash Evens
Doc – Joe Gioco
Lieutenant Schrank – Robert Ierardi
Officer Krupke – Steve Greenstein
Glad Hand – Stuart Dowling
Jet Boys: Action – John Arthur Greene; A-Rab – Ian Paget; Baby John – Anthony Napoletano; Snow Boy – Justin Braboy-Hapner; Big Deal – Logan Keslar; Diesel – Victor James Wisehart; Gee-Tar – Ryan Ghysels; Tigar – Edgar Lawrence
Shark Boys: Chino – Julian Alvarez; Pepe – Shawn Burgess; Indio – Waldemar Quinines-Villanueva; Luis – Stanley Martin; Anxious – Daniel Harder; Nibbles – Brett Emmons; Moose – Miguel Edson
Jet Girls: Graziella – Kimberley Wolff; Velma – Lindsay Dunn; Minnie – Marfina Lazzaretto; Clarice – Shayna Harris; Pauline – Jacqueline Scafidi; Anybody’s – Sara Dobbs
Shark Girls: Rosalia – Maya Flock; Consuela – Sarah Reál; Teresita – Tanya Birl; Francisca –Tanairi Vazquez; Estella – Jennifer Locke; Margarita – Danelle Morgan

The Orchestra
Donald Chan

Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Joey McKneely – Direction and reproduction of choreography
Donald Chan – Musical Supervision
Paul Gallis – Set Design
Renate Schmitzer – Costume Design
Pater Halbsgut – Light Design
Rick Clarke – Sound Design
Hannelore Uhrmacher – Make-up Design

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 2 August, 2008
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Jerome Robbins was very proprietorial about “West Side Story” and would never allow changes to be made to his choreography. He even appears to control the show from beyond the grave and essentially still has a hand in the 50th-anniversary world tour production that is currently in London.

It is appropriate for the show to be at what has now become London’s major dance house. “West Side Story” is a dance show in that the music, the dialogue and the movement are all combined to serve a single integrated art form. In 1957, when “West Side Story” premiered in New York, musicals were works of three separate components: dialogue scenes which stopped every so often for a song and maybe a dance but not necessarily at the same time.

In “West Side Story” composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, writer Arthur Laurents and director Jerome Robbins told their tale with all three elements fused together. Short scene followed short scene with minimal changes of setting so that the story flowed seamlessly from one location to another. At that time this must have seemed revolutionary, but nowadays it is quite commonplace to have a more informal way of progressing from A to B. Now is the time of the sung-through musical with short scenes (the influence of television?), which may account for the continued success of revivals over new shows.

Are there any great American musicals out there now? Only from the heyday of Sondheim’s output (“A Little Night Music”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Follies”, “Sunday in the Park with George”, “Pacific Overtures”, “Merrily We Roll Along”) have we had any recent musical-theatre masterpieces to stand comparison with the greats of 50 years ago such as “Guys and Dolls”, “Call Me Madam”, “Damn Yankees”, “My Fair Lady”, “The Music Man”, “Gypsy” and “West Side Story”, which in 1957 was the start of something new.

It is good to be able to report, then, that “West Side Story” survives its 50 years, wears its age well and comes through with flying colours. It even manages to be as relevant today as it was half-a-century ago. Then New York had gang warfare on its streets and now in contemporary London, so do we. The original story, however, goes back to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and possibly even beyond that, if only to prove that there have always been street-gangs fighting and killing each other.

For this anniversary production director Joey McKneely has reproduced Robbins’s choreography with great reverence and assembled a mainly North American company to perform, which does the honours with skill, conviction and total dedication. That said, would it be heresy to suggest that maybe it is time for another dance-director to put his or her stamp on it?

Surely someone like Matthew Bourne or Christopher Wheeldon would love to get their hands on “West Side Story” and recreate it in a new style. After all, we no longer insist on having the Agnes de Mille ballets for the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein and revivals of most other musicals start again from scratch. A case in point is what various hands subsequently did to Bernstein’s other masterpiece, “Candide”. I don’t necessarily mean to ditch Jerome Robbins’s work entirely, but it could be expanded and re-thought instead of remaining a 1950s’ period piece.

Bernstein’s music does not appear to have dated and the orchestra plays the score (conducted either by Donald Chan or Sylvain Bousquet) with immense bravado while the music itself is still bold and contemporary in feel. Whether it is the explicatory opening number ‘When you’re a Jet’ or the mysterious ‘Something’s coming’ or the exciting rhythms of ‘America’, Bernstein’s signature is always writ large in every passionate note. Even the sentimentality of ‘Tonight’, ‘One hand, one heart’, ‘I feel pretty’ and ‘Maria’ are all marked with typical edginess. Bernstein loved and wrote a lot of dance music and this is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Maria’ with its gentle cha-cha rhythm leading into a sweepingly lush and full-romantic orchestration. His devotion to the big sound of rhythmic dance pervades much of his work and it found its ideal expression in “West Side Story”.

So, the music and the dance stand up, but what about the book and lyrics? Arthur Laurents’s book is spare and economical: a little really does go a long way. It may seem a little dated in its stereotype portrayals and the humour may fall short of today’s more sophisticated quips, but for the most part it holds the piece together. In a musical you shouldn’t need too much dialogue because much of the drama and the emotion of it can be translated into song and dance. Sondheim may not still be in love with his lyrics, but their simplicity and lack of pretension still work.

The whole show is an ensemble production, so it would be invidious to select any particular member. It is sufficient to say that Ryan Silverman as Tony, Sofia Escobar as Maria and Lana Gordon as Anita (these are double-cast roles) have potential star quality. A hugely talented company of Jets and Sharks backs them and shows no signs of flagging. Unusually for a piece with a huge singing and dancing chorus, everyone plays a named character; everybody has their own personality. “West Side Story” continues to be a huge success (it does a UK tour after London) and rightly so. You probably won’t find a better chorus line in London at present but one day it just might be salutary to see the piece from another choreographic viewpoint.

  • West Side Story is at Sadler’s Wells Theatre until Sunday 31 August
  • Tickets 0844 412 4300
  • Sadler’s Wells

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