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West Side Story

This classic is at the Hippodrome until May 2nd in this 50th anniversary production. Terry Wills compares it to the original which he saw in the West End.

Ask the question, name ‘the worlds greatest theatrical musical’ and inevitably you’ll receive a multitude of conflicting answers. Simply because it’s a personal opinion without a defining, unshakeable, cannot be disputed’ answer.

But in saying that if a short list was drawn up and a vote taken, for me it would be a major surprise if West Side Story wasn’t among the top ten, if not top five, to be accorded the honour.

A brief summary. It first saw light of day in Washington in 1957.Opened and closed on Broadway after 734 performances. The inevitable transfer to the UK a year later saw it cocooned in London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre after receiving rave reviews and thrilling thousands of theatregoers during its three year run.

A return to Broadway with the original production confirmed, if any confirmation was needed, that West Side Story would become a smash hit in the true sense of the word.

Yet for all that arguably it was the 1961 Hollywood blockbuster big screen film version that brought it to the attention of a worldwide audience. Starring George Chakiris, Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn, and Rita Moreno it transfixed audiences, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and walked away with 10!

The seeds were sown. ‘West Side Story’ had set the benchmark and now almost unbelievably it’s touring the UK to celebrate its 50-year Anniversary.

Since it’s inception it’s been constantly revived by both professional and amateur companies safe in the knowledge that it’s virtually guaranteed to leave audiences clamouring for more courtesy of it’s wonderful songs and thrilling choreography.

The story based on Romeo and Juliet is uncomplicated, easy to follow, with a not unsurprising tragic ending.

It’s set in the Upper West side of New York in the 1950’s where rival gangs the American ‘Jets’ and the unwanted Puerto Rican Sharks, battle for control of the streets.

Riff leads the ‘Jets,’ Bernardo the ‘Sharks’ both are hot headed, bigoted, and full of hate for each other’s respective cultures.

Complications in the shape of a budding romance between Bernardo’s sister Maria, and Tony, the best friend of Riff, leads to anger and a series of confrontations climaxed in the final scene as, too late, both gangs ultimately realise that inbuilt hate and anger can only lead to misjudgement and unwanted tragedy.

The strength of West Side Story lies in the wonderful, memorable music penned by Leonard Bernstein aided by the haunting lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.

The principal roles, Tony (Daniel Koek) Maria (Sofia Escober) Riff (Howard Jones) Bernardo (Dan Burton) and Anita (Jayde Westaby) are eye catching especially when combined with the vocal range needed to illustrate the songs.

My only slight misgivings surround Howard Jones who I felt lacked the strength and feeling needed to convey the dominating figure as the Jets leader Riff.

Undoubtedly the outstanding performance comes from Daniel Koek as Tony. His solo renditions of ‘Something’s Coming’, and particularly ‘Maria’ led to sustained applause. A magnificent voice and a name that will become more and more familiar as he builds on this success.

‘West Side Story’ carries other memorable songs. ‘I Feel Pretty’ ‘Somewhere, ‘One Hand, one Heart’ and probably the most dynamic song and dance number of them all ‘America’.

Curiously and somewhat surprisingly the producers have lessened the impact of this show stopper, which sees the Puerto Rican American loving girls, arguing and singing it’s delights in opposition to the can’t stand America boys, by deciding the girls could adequately convey the rights and wrongs of the relative arguments.

Sorry Mr Producer this lessened the impact as it eliminated the witty repartee and visual moments as the debate raged back and forth.

The sets and lighting are used to full effect especially for ‘Tonight’ which sets the scene for the inevitable rumble, by focusing in turn on the rival gangs, Tony, Marie, Anita, and the despairing cops desperate to discover the location of the inevitable confrontation.

Choreographer Joey McKneely successfully illustrates the confrontations between the rival gangs and their girls with great effect. Fiery Anita. Gentle Maria, and the ensemble as a whole displaying the agility and dexterity required for the appropriate scenes.

Probably many ‘Stirrer’ readers will have seen previous productions of this stunning musical but should they decide to visit the Hippodrome to see this latest adaptation I’m sure they won’t leave feeling disappointed.

Now an admission! I actually saw the original 1958 ‘West Side Story’ in London with George Chakiris playing the role of Riff, but following the decision to transfer it to the ‘silver screen’ he was handed the role of Bernardo!

34 years later, July 1992, he came to the Alexandra Theatre and at a meeting with Club Members I had the opportunity to chat with him about his starring roles in both the stage and film versions of ‘’West Side Story’

What are your recollections of these productions and how do you rate ‘West Side Story’?

A no hesitation answer ‘It’s a long time ago but West Side Story’ was and still is, a wonderful show. Everyone enjoyed it and it’s certain to continue thrilling audiences for many years to come”

An observation that’s proved to be 100% correct. Confirmed by the ovation from a virtual full house Hippodrome audience that I haven’t the slightest doubt, will be repeated after every performance during it’s welcome return to the city.

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