West Side Story is an iconic musical. From the music to the story, it has a special place in all our hearts, whether it’s your all-time favourite or because you repeatedly listened to ‘Something’s Coming’ during your Music GCSE.
Consequently, drifting into the rehearsal room mid-song, I was immediately lost in nostalgia at the expert vocals of Brandon Levin (Tony). This will be a production which is true to what we know and love about the show. But a sense of nostalgia is definitely not all that Byzantium Productions’ West Side Story has to offer. With original choreography by Ed Addison, a cast of over 30 committed actors and a full orchestra brought to the stage under the watchful eye of Eric Foster, it is sure to be impressive.
Furthermore, as Clemi Collett – Maria – notes, it is “a very ‘raw’ version of West Side Story. The show is aesthetically incredible, and the dancing is stunning, but at the same time I feel as if it’s really explored the depth and meaning behind the text.”
The play follows the rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks, set in the oppressive environment of 1950s Manhattan, counting racism and violence among its themes. It is about how hate breeds hate – something as pertinent to a 1950s audience as it is to us today. At its core, however, is the love story between Tony and Maria. From ‘Balcony Scene (Tonight)’, it was evident to see the chemistry between these two; they have obviously worked hard on conveying the love story that thrives throughout a story full of hate. Speaking of this to Collett, she describes their relationship as “a true and impulsive love, which is coloured, and in the end destroyed, by the world around them”. Put quite beautifully, Maria is “a woman who has learnt to love, but now also to hate.”
Yet, while these themes are addressed, the show does not forget its humour. This was made especially evident by Helena Wilson’s Anita in what is sure to be a showstopping ‘America’.
Furthermore, I was wildly impressed with the slickness and potential of all the numbers I saw in this first stumble run given they still have a few weeks left of rehearsal.
Dom Applewhite, the director, spoke to me about his aim to not have “cardboard cutout” characters. He said, “In my mind, musical theatre acting often looks bland precisely because the actors have been directed according to the emotions of the scene, rather than allowing them to happen naturally.”
One major way of questioning this has been through Maria, who, whilst a great character, suffers from her position as a woman. This is evident in a number of ways, such as Maria being given only one solo compared to Tony’s two. To combat this, he has actively tried to be aware of the stereotypes and has researched feminism in musical theatre – “It’s an old musical, but we’ve definitely imbued it with a Twenty-First century attitude!”
What was most palpable about the run was the sense of excitement among the cast seeing each other’s work for the first time; they seem to know they are on to something good. And, given what I’ve seen and the fact that already a quarter of tickets have sold, I have to agree. Something’s coming indeed and I can’t wait to see it.