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Review: West Side Story at Royal Exchange Theatre

★ ★ ★ ★ An assertive and powerful reimagining of an iconic tale.

For those of us not tormented by the worry that usually accompanies a completely re-imagined iconic show, the new production of West Side Story by Sarah Frankcom at Royal Exchange Theatre is layered with contemporary relevance.

Imbued with the same themes as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – two star-crossed lovers – West Side Story has more than familial tensions. It is about cultural and racial tensions between gangs in New York; the youth and how we fit into a world that is already unsettled and disturbed before we even have a chance to leave our mark in it. Thus, when it comes to both the retelling and relocating of the tale, this production is timely. Although set in 1957 Manhattan, the show is hugely significant today, amidst a generation which continues to blindly count the cost of rooted prejudice.

Central to Frankom’s production is a palpable tension that is maintained throughout the show – it is the Jets vs the Sharks, young vs old, Puerto Ricans vs Americans.

Frankcom chooses a modern set – all white, clean and glass, instead of the usual scaffolding – whilst her young, diverse and richly-expressive cast bring colour to the show as they subtly drive the points home. Gabriela Garcia (Maria) is outstanding, not because she is the only voice of reason amongst the bigotry but because of her vocal range and how she consistently commands the stage as she defines the overarching theme of love prevailing over everything.

Although the costumes fit their time, designer Polly Sullivan ensures their accessibility in relation to modern times, making the cast relatable whilst not straying too far from the original.

Perhaps the only segment that did feel somewhat far-removed from the original was the choreography, which lacked the wholesome consistency of Jerome Robbins. In this production, choreographer Aletta Collins uses a more casual, yet athletic approach which, by all accounts, is powerful. The dance scenes have energy but fall short in achieving the same impact akin to Robbins’. Simply put, Collins’ version has more action than actual ‘dance’; perhaps purposely done to evoke the urgency in its contemporary setting. The dance in the original is ballet, whereas this version adopts a modern lightly boy-ish spin, particularly in the fight scenes.

Wherever the choreography may have lacked in mirroring the original’s, the music raised the scales much higher. For such a small ensemble and cast – with just one cello and no one on strings – the music is assertive and delivers a big performance befitting the show’s iconic status. Musical supervisor/orchestrator Jason Carr and musical director Mark Aspinall both land on their feet here, as they consider all of the Latin influences, which do come across well. From Mambo onwards, Aspinall does well to ensure things kick-off, musically.

Although scenes are neat, they are not fluid. In terms of engaging the youth in the dialogue of fighting for peace, whilst noting the additional specifics that are part and parcel of that struggle, this production succeeds emphatically. For its accessibility alone, this production is a necessary instalment in the growing list of new versions of the warring Jets and Sharks.

West Side Story is showing at Royal Exchange Theatre until 25 May.

TNT Arts & Culture

Photo Credit: Royal Exchange

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