I’m not actually sure if I ever watched all of the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, or if I just saw parts and filled in the blanks with my knowledge of Romeo and Juliet. Nonetheless, West Side Story is one of those musicals we feel we know all about even if we’ve never seen a single scene. We know it’s American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, we know it’s a young couple in love, we know about its slightly incongruous use of finger-clicking and balletic movement to convey the gritty reality of gang violence on the streets of New York. Despite the extent to which West Side Story has saturated popular culture, this performance from Byzantium Productions, directed by Dominic Applewhite, finds a rawness and urgency in the musical which force the audience to look at it with a fresh and unbiased perspective.
The conflict between the leather-jacketed Sharks and the Americana-clad Jets has its pointlessness foregrounded – reasons for the schism are posited, but the overwhelming impression is that the young men fight because they don’t have very much, and they don’t have anything better to do either. Both gangs’ similarities and differences are conveyed by an incredibly talented ensemble and leads, with the fantastic and well-executed choreography giving this conflict an extra edge, as well as giving the whole show a polished and visually striking finish.
Although much of the plot is driven by male violence, this doesn’t stop the female characters shining through as some of the most outstanding performances in an extremely talented cast. Clementine Collett gives a sweet, spirited, and deeply moving performance as an endearingly vivacious Maria, cheeringly pragmatic compared with the love-struck idealism of Tony.
Helena Wilson likewise gives a performance of formidable power and presence as Anita. From the moment she teams up with Annabel Mutale Reed’s Rosalia for what is an absolutely show-stopping rendition of ‘America’, to the song’s chillingly ironic echo later in the show’s score, Wilson is a winning and captivating presence onstage.
The central couple is charming, with Collett and Brandon Levin pulling off the difficult task of making a two day romance seem plausible and unforced. Their singing impresses as much as their acting – Tony and Maria need to be able to carry the show, and this pair makes it look easy. Not only is their love believable, but it also serves to endear the characters to the audience even more, making them share the couple’s sorrow as well as their happiness.
West Side Story remains one of the most enduring re-workings of Shakespeare, and this production makes you realise exactly why that is. Even after the musical’s big hits are over and done with, this production continues to hold the audience’s attention, right until a very emotional performance of the play’s tragic ending. This reviewer may have even shed a small tear. The show’s not perfect – there are some very lengthy scene changes, and one or two dodgy accents – but it’s damn close. I can dig it.