Review | West Side Story at Birmingham Hippodrome

2019 is a huge year for Birmingham Hippodrome as the iconic venue is celebrating its 120th anniversary. During this time, it has welcomed some truly iconic shows and performers to its main stage, who have entertained millions by taking them away from the troubles of day to day life and encasing them in an entirely new world.

In this day and age as technology continues to grow, within this lies concern that our traditional forms of entertainment may suffer, that young people couldn’t care less about musical theatre and productions, so much so, that only just a few years ago the education system was discussing removing both drama and music from teaching syllabuses altogether. Imagine that, a world without theatre?

The company of West Side Story. Credit: Simon Hadley Photography.

But the truth of the matter is that the younger generation turning their heads on theatre couldn’t be further from the truth, they just need to be given the platform to produce it. And that’s exactly what the Hippodrome has done to a cast of 40 young performers who are currently starring in the theatre’s first youth production, West Side Story.

Now make no mistake in thinking that this is some low-quality am-dram show – it’s far from it. The cast of 40 have been hand-picked for this fresh adaptation of the show that is famously based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Some of the cast have just completed their GCSE’s – Alex Cook takes on the role of Tony at just 16 – while others are in their final stages of preparing to study at some of the most prestigious arts universities in the country – Kamilla Fernandes (Maria) is heading to Arts Educational Schools London in September.

Credit: Simon Hadley Photography

West Side Story is a beautiful show, but also demanding, both physically and vocally, so for such a young and talented cast to take it on is a mammoth task – not to mention that they only had a three-week gap to cram in as much rehearsal time as possible. But having made it through auditions where more than 1000 hopefuls applied, this extraordinary group of young performers brought this show to life in ways that I never expected.

Following the story of star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, West Side Story shines the spotlight on two rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. And when former Jets member Tony falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks leader, Benardo, it causes a catastrophe that none of them ever imagined would happen.

Credit: Simon Hadley Photography

It’s packed with truly beautiful and challenging music – fiery America and the touching Somewhere are among the show-stopping score, all of which were performed by a collection of students and lecturers and graduates from Birmingham City University. But this home-grown cast showed no issues with tackling the challenging vocals and delivering them to an unbelievable standard, all while throwing all their remaining energy into the slick and stylish choreography.

Shining the spotlight on just the leading cast simply wouldn’t be fair, as every young performer deserved their place on that stage. Their admiration for theatre, their determination to do the show, the theatre and crew justice was as clear as day and at some points, I had to remind myself that these performers weren’t even professionals, and that’s a testament to both them and everyone behind the show.

Kamilla Fernandes (Maria) and Alex Cook (Tony) Credit: Simon Hadley Photography

Of course, Kamilla Fernandes was a gorgeous Maria, alongside Alex Cook, the duo have a sensational vocal range and their chemistry was perfect. On many moments when I paid particular attention to Cook’s voice during his stunning rendition of Maria, I was hearing hints of Phantom of the Opera, only to open the programme during the interval to discover that he once took on the famed role. Equally, Matthew Pandya was more than impressive as the feisty Riff. He’s stepped into the shoes of his character to bring a sublime performance to the stage of the Hippodrome.

While some might say that the Hippodrome took a huge risk by allowing 40 young performers to put on a show on its main stage, I can say hand on heart that if it was a risk, it’s one that has certainly paid off. Packed with an abundance of emotion that left the audience clapping and cheering until the curtain fell for the final time, Birmingham Hippodrome and the young performers of the West Midlands can walk with their heads held well and truly high, as this is a moment that will go down in the Hippodrome’s history books for many years to come.

West Side Story runs at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday, August 31. Click here to book tickets.

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