It is quite rightly considered to be the greatest musical of them all, and last night ‘West Side Story’ at the New Alexandra Theatre mesmerised Birmingham with a production of power and intensity. A VIP audience was treated to a performance that had it all, a standout leading man, songs that made the heart both soar and ache in equal measure, dance that combined the most thrilling aspects of ballet and salsa in exhilarating form, and a ending that was tragic, and yet hopeful. West Side Story is a theatrical experience that shocked with its modernism and violence in the late 1950s, but has a story that still resonates today, of the futility of gang violence and an ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy.
West Side Story is an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and this production was well served with sets that transferred the audience to 1950s New York, a time of gangs and gang warfare on the streets. The stage is dominated by fire escape style staircases, giving the clear impression of poor New York tenement buildings. This is to be the setting for a lot of the action and key songs.
The native New Yorkers ‘The Jets’ are ‘poor white trash’ dragged up by parents who seem to care little about their whereabouts or activities. They find family and brotherhood in their gang, and a common enemy in ‘The Sharks’, immigrant Puerto Ricans who are even lower down the social scale. Gang animosities come to the fore when Tony, a handsome ex-prominent member of The Jets, falls instantly in love with the lovely Maria, a newcomer to the area and the sister of ‘The Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.
Tony, as played by Louis Maskell, is an absolute revelation. Charismatic, and with a wonderful soaring voice, he bought passion and tenderness to Tony, you genuinely believed he had fallen in love at first site. Maria was played by Charlotte Baptie with just the right amount of innocence and sweetness, but, as in the movie version, she is overshadowed by the sensational Dialenga Scott as the sassy, but ultimately tragic Anita. Her performance of ‘America’ was one of the absolute high points of a faultless show, and with her stage presence and stunning costumes, it was a commanding performance.
The gangs were portrayed with real verve and style, with ‘The Jets’ performance of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ being another compelling, and quite hilarious number. The use of costume to define the differences between the gang was clever and effective, The Sharks are all bright suits and muscle vests, The Jets in 50s era sports clothing, silk bomber jackets and muted shades. Tony was shown to be different, apart from the gang ethos, and somehow more grown-up, in his attire of smart shirt and trousers. This worked really well as a visual reminder of the cultural and social differences of the two groups of young people.
As the fatal gunshot rang out, and the musical was bought to its tragic denouement, it was clear that Birmingham Audiences had been treated to something very special. If you can beg, steal or borrow a ticket for this classic, I would do just that.
West Side Story is at Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 19th April. Tickets are available via www.atgtickets.com/Birmingham or by calling 0844 871 3011