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West Side Story
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
IN 1946 Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein about the possibility of creating a musical version of Romeo and Juliet and, after many trials and tribulations, West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957.
It was a huge hit and set the standard for the modern musical and it was certainly in tune with the times. The US was emerging from the second world war and young people were becoming frustrated and angry for change.
The racism and intolerance creating a gang culture, brutally played out on the mean streets of the big cities, provided a perfect context to recontextualise the most famous love story of all time.
The combination of Bernstein’s inspirational music, Stephen Sondheim’s clever and evocative lyrics and Robbins’s outstanding choreography created a masterpiece of danger and unbridled passion, with an undercurrent of sexual energy.
Following acclaimed productions of Sweet Charity, Guys and Dolls and The Producers, the Royal Exchange is acquiring a well-deserved reputation for staging musicals, so it’s disappointing that West Side Story appears to be a musical too far.
Although it’s understandable that aspects of the classic work need amending to fit the theatre’s unique stage, by ditching Robbins’s iconic choreography and introducing some re-orchestration, the work loses some of its tension and emotional power and the sparring between the Jets and the Sharks lacks the edginess of his original conception.
As with Romeo and Juliet, it’s crucial to believe in Maria and Tony’s “love at first sight” but unfortunately here the spark between them fails to ignite and the tragic consequences of their love is strangely muted.
In a world littered with prejudice, division and racial tension West Side Story is as relevant as it’s ever been but any updating needs to remain true to the original’s essential core.
Even so, there are some excellent performances, especially from Michael Duke as Riff, leader of the Jets and by far the most polished and exciting dancer, while Jocasta Almgill’s Anita fizzes with energy.
Runs until May 25, box office: royal exchange.co.uk
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