West Side Story
Melanie Sierra and Jadon Webster in West Side Story. Image by Johan Persson
There are musicals and there are musicals. Then there’s West Side Story. First produced in 1957, immortalised in movie form in 1961, even Spielberg’s diminished attempt in 2020 couldn’t derail this modern classic from standing the test of time. West Side Story being a musical royal flush. Great script, great music, great performances, great singing, and, critically, great dancing. The latter a key to its continued success. Jerome Robbin’s choreography marrying depth and spectacle. Unlike Justin Peck’s Vegas floorshows in Spielberg’s lacklustre reimagining. All flaring fireworks instantly forgettable as soon as the fizzle starts, movement being decorative at best. Yet, for Robbins, dance was integral to the expressive whole. Hugely evident in the latest reimagining of West Side Story lighting up the stage at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. A riveting production that speaks to the present by rooting itself in the past.
That past being the original 1957 show script. Whose Romeo and Juliet inspired take on gang culture in 50’s New York by Arthur Laurentis lies rooted further in the past. Laurentis owing more than a passing nod of thanks to Shakespeare. Yet West Side Story proves an entity in its own right. It’s tale of the Caucasian Jets, mostly Polish and Irish, and the Puerto Rican Sharks fighting over territory in the slums of Manhattan told a tale of its time that was ahead of its time and speaks to all time. Its star crossed lovers, the Jet’s main man Tony, and the girlish Puerto Rican Maria, from opposite cultural cliques find true love respects no such divides. Cupid’s arrow striking home, forcing the lovers to make some painful choices in a world where men die and women endure as destiny is decided by a blade or a bullet.
West Side Story. Image by Johan Persson
If the production lacks Robbin’s direct touch, it has the next best thing in choreographer Julio Monge. Monge, who worked with Robbins in the 80s, having both a conceptual and physical connection to the original dance sequences, ensures they retain their visceral integrity and immediacy. Helped, in no small measure, by director Lonny Price, whose compositional marriage of text and movement is enhanced by, and enhances the choreography. Even Anna Louizos’s stunning set seems to twirl and swirl in response to both the drama and Leonard Bernstein’s passionate and often subversive score. Bathed to perfection in Fabrice Kebour’s stunning lights.
Lest it sounds like a ballet (and there’s arguably a case to be made there), with their opening few bars both chorus and leads remind you that song and singing are what it’s all about. I Feel Pretty, America, Tonight, and the classic Somewhere containing some of Stephen Sondheim’s best lyrics. Singing, across the board, proving exceptional. Notably Jadon Webster as Tony. Talented, good looking and with a powerhouse voice to match, Webster’s Tony is so good it almost feels criminal. But Webster is more than matched by a sensational Melanie Sierra whose Maria is breath-taking, her singing mesmerising. A Maria for the twenty-first century, Sierra ensures Maria’s Disney princess dreams are but the foundation for her coming of age and growing into womanhood. Sierra, along with some deft directorial decisions by Price, breathing fresh life into the grown-up Maria. Here a fully fleshed character, no longer the sidekick to the louder Anita, an impressive Kyra Sorce. Under Sierra’s guidance, Maria reclaims her limelight, reminding us that this is Maria’s story. Sierra, herself of Puerto Rican heritage (as is Monge), resolving that other issue which has dogged earlier productions: appropriate casting. Meanwhile Anthony Sanchez as Bernado, and Taylor Harley as Rif lead a stunning supporting cast.
West Side Story. Image by Johan Persson
There are many revivals, and many well intentioned revivals, and then there’s this revival of West Side Story which is undertaking a gruelling world tour. Together, Monge and Price have produced something that stands with the best. There’s a spine to it. Meat on the bones. A blood pumping heart that catches your breath at times. Yet it’s still got glitz and oodles of glamour, with Alejo Vietti’s costumes a sight for sore eyes. And in the young Sierra and Webster we witness two stars on the rise. Indeed, the large cast contains many young first timers who, individually and collectively, prove hugely impressive. We will surely be seeing more of them. But why wait? Do yourself a favour and see them now. West Side Story. Not to be missed.
West Side Story, produced by BB Promotions GmbH, and Sundance Productions Inc., NY, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until June 24th
For more information visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
The above is based on a performance seen at Alte Oper Frankfurt, April 12.