West Side Story, loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, has been among the greatest musicals for more than 60 years. But while Shakespeare’s original is constantly re-imagined, in all this time, no-one has tinkered with Jerome Robbins’ choreography – until now.
Robbins’ finger-clicking, jazz ballet Broadway moves have become so recognisable and iconic, both through the stage show and 1961 film, that it’s hard to imagine West Side Story without them. After all, West Side Story was Robbins’ concept – the dance being central to the whole piece. It’s understandable therefore why we might have waited so long for a fresh take, and like the old joke, you wait ages for a bus then three come along at once.
Currently, Steven Spielberg is working on a new movie version with choreographer, Justin Peck. On Broadway, Ivo van Hove is directing a new production set to open this Christmas with new choreography from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. And at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Sarah Frankcom beats both to it, producing the musical in-the-round with new choreography from Aletta Collins.
In Frankcom’s case this re-imagining isn’t purely for the sake of it. Robbins’ original choreography simply wouldn’t work in the intimate space of the Royal Exchange. It takes ambition to stage such a big iconic musical and turn it into something fresh and new. But the Royal Exchange has successful recent history with musical theatre, particularly after an extended Christmas run of The Producers. And judging by the fact the run virtually sold out before it opened, while the choice is ambitious it’s not a gamble in audience terms.
The huge advantage the Exchange has over many bigger theatres is the ability to draw the audience into the action in a way that makes them feel almost participants rather than distant onlookers. Experiencing the acting, singing and music so close-up heightens emotion to a level that for many – judging by the audible sobs at the end – was overwhelming.
Here, the staging is minimal, but highly effective. New York fire-escapes are reimagined as geometric steel frames, that act as a multi-layered playground for dancers to swing off, jump over, and stand circle-height as if scouring the street below. The stage, larger than usual because some stall-level seating has been removed, is filled largely with the dynamic energy of the cast alone.
Collins’ new choreography is an eclectic mix of styles. There are the clear Latin influences with Salsa and Mambo moves, but also a lot of street dance and menacing circling that draws us into the tension between these two New York gangs.
Although not confined to any one era, the flare dresses and bouffant petticoats give a nod to the 50s when the musical first premiered. Under MD Tom Chester, Bernstein’s jazzy score bursts with youthful energy and the cast make Sondheim’s lyrics soar like young love.
Andy Cox and Gabriela Garcia have a wonderful stage chemistry and charming innocence as ill-fated lovers from across the tracks, Tony and Maria. Michael Duke (Riff) and Fernando Mariano (Bernado) make convincing gang leaders. While Jocasta Almgill gives a sparky performance as Anita, bringing out the full horrific impact of the sexual assault in Arthur Laurents’ book that turns the course of events to further tragedy.
This overall edginess is particularly acute in the knife and gun rumbles between the opposing Jets and Sharks. The pain of these senseless murders feels closer given the current of violence on our streets. Along with the dreamy romance of songs like Maria and the vibrancy of America, this musical packs a firm punch of harsh reality. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, don’t forget your tissues.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
West Side Story is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 6 April – 25 May 2019.
Find out what’s coming up in July for the Manchester International Festival, MIF19.