The classic musical gets a rumble of a revival with the Stage Experience at the New Alexandra Theatre.
West Side Story is one of the most beloved musicals of all time, thanks to timeless songs like ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘Somewhere’. So it was only a matter of time before it came to the stage in Birmingham.
The story is obviously inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and follows the plot pretty closely. The Jets and Sharks are rival gangs who clash regularly on the streets of New York, led by Riff and Bernardo respectively. One night at a dance hall, Tony, a former Jet, meets Maria, Bernardo’s sister… and the rest is just as you might expect. They fall instantly, madly in love, and needless to say, their short-lived affair ends in tragedy.
Tony and Maria are up there with the most famous star-crossed lovers, and just like with Romeo and Juliet, you kind of have to suspend your disbelief that these crazy kids would be willing to risk everything after barely an hour in each other’s company. Just go along with it; they’re in love, they want to escape their criminal families and make a life together, and so naturally, one of them has to die. (This is not a spoiler for anyone remotely familiar with any love story ever.)
Much like The Stage Experience’s production of Grease last summer, the young cast here are uniformly strong. Grace Whyte embodies sweetness and innocence as Maria, with a strong soprano voice to boot, while Elliot Gooch, Jordan Ricketts and Javier Aguilera bristle with juvenile masculinity as Tony, Riff and Bernardo. The show is repeatedly stolen, though, by Leah Vassell as Anita, who leads the memorable musical number ‘America’ and nails both the comedic and emotional beats.
And a special mention must go to the choreography; the “rumbles,” which mirror the iconic film scenes, seamlessly include every member of the sizeable cast — while the Jets’ movements are balletic, the Sharks’ dance moves are noticeably Latin-influenced.
Like many musicals, West Side Story is of its time. The racism endured by the Puerto Rican characters is uncomfortable to sit through, as are the rather out-dated gender politics — in one scene, a young girl who is desperate to join the Jets helps a group of men terrorise a woman. But with its own take on the American dream of the 1960s, I doubt that a 21st century interpretation work as well, or be half as charming.