The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
West Side Story is older than me, first being performed on Broadway in 1957. The story itself is as old as the hills, based on Romeo And Juliet, which, in turn can be traced back to Ovid’s Pyramus And Thisbe in 8AD. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, including the ‘jibba-jabba’ pseudo-street talk. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim debuted as a lyric writer and Jerome Roberts oversaw the concept and choreographed the show.
The 1961 film cleaned up both at the box office and at the Oscars. Rita Moreno as Anita was the first Latina actress ever to win an Oscar. The soundtrack won a Grammy and was number one for a whole year.
In 1984, Leonard Bernstein wanted to emphasise the operatic nature of the music and re- recorded a double album of the score with classically trained singers led by Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony and Tatiana Troyanos as Anita. All the hit songs, Something’s Coming, Maria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere, shone through.
The show returns to Manchester, the city that first brought it to the UK public’s attention in 1958. The Royal Exchange has even built a soundproofed room to accommodate the orchestra. From the very beginning, Sandra Frankcom’s direction in the round is true to the original. The cast are in jeans and sneakers. The script is barely changed and The Jets sport convincing New York accents. Aletta Collins’s choreography is urban, dynamic and beautifully co-ordinated. The dancing is spectacular. The moment when Tony’s and Maria’s eyes first meet still stops hearts. The lead three voices are superb: Andy Coxon as Tony, Gabriela Garcia and Jocasta Almgill as Anita sound genuinely Hollywood. The cast is asked to sing, dance and act. Often, at least few are unable to excel in all three but they are all on point and there are no weaknesses. Even, the fight scenes were pretty convincing for musical theatre.
As a child, those Puerto Rican ladies in the movie were the height of exoticism. As a teen, Natalie Wood, as Maria, was the most gorgeous creature alive. As a young adult, the 1984 ‘operatic’ album opened my ears to a broader range of classical music. Today, in the context of Trump’s America and the rise of knife crime in the UK, this show made me fully appreciate the poignancy of the violence and the plight of immigrants.
It’s a production that perfectly captures the delicacy of romance flowering in a field of hatred. Even after more than sixty years, performed this well, West Side Story still packs a hefty emotional punch.
The theatre crowd is a genteel, polite crowd. I was complimented on my blazer. There were two aberrations: a phone very briefly rang and one f*ckwit, sitting on the front row, had to be told to turn hers off – she may have been checking her texts.
There were people standing at the end.
It made me think..
Sandra Frankcom is moving to London. The Royal Exchange’s loss is the West End’s gain. I think she’ll knock ’em dead.
In the meantime, Manchester is yet again setting the tone for this much-loved show. There is a Broadway revival and a new film in the pipeline. Watch this space.