Review: West Side Story

Written by: Mark O'Neill

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

This New York tale of young love amid warring teens is an enduring modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and this touring production shows why.

Tony and Maria on the balcony in West Side Story

Ethnic tensions simmer in a 1950s neighbourhood, where life is a turf war for the teenage Jets and Sharks. The swaggering Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are unwelcome among the finger-clicking Jets, but warnings from law enforcement range from hapless (Sion Tudor Owen’s Officer Krupke) to hopelessly cocky (Jason Griffiths as Lieutenant Schrank). We’re heading for a showdown.

As the Montagues and Capulets taught us, love has a way of jumping barriers, and when the Jets’ Tony meets the Sharks’ Maria at a local dance, gang warfare is exposed as meaningless. Louis Maskell is intensely brooding as Tony; Katie Hall makes a bright and energetic Maria. Both leads bring operatic verve to Leonard Bernstein’s ballads, with Somewhere among the handful of the show’s great numbers familiar even to newcomers.

But even on the Upper West Side, the course of true love is jerky. While Maria and Tony keep their relationship secret, the Sharks and Jets gear up for a ‘rumble’. It’s a term silly enough to reflect the gangs’ inconsistent presentation. At times tamer than seal cubs, it’s all change as they gather in bunches on a fenced-in lot, jeering as the ringleaders reach for a glint in their pockets. What follows is as balletic a fight as you’ll see – almost too stagey, though Jerome Robbins’ nimble choreography conjures a false sense of security before the fall.

West Side Story’s Shakespearean origin clues you in that the plot may end up far from feel-good. That doesn’t stop the first half being both tender and fun, while the second finds time for the Jets’ jaunty Gee, Officer Krupke, an ironic lament about their ‘social disease’. Further light comes from Djalenga Scott, outstanding as the Sharks’ Anita. By turns fierce and sisterly, she offers believable concern for Maria and brings enough spark to America to make it a show highlight. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics mix characteristic spike, wit and grace throughout.

Songs and story are ably assisted by the set, which captures blue-collar squalor tinged with summer romance. Three storeys of beams, rusting railings, gratings and ladders, it’s minimal (the hallmark of a touring show) but intricate. When Tony scales steps and vaults balconies to reach Maria, the sense of space adds to the feel of forbidden love. The set also benefits from clean backlighting, whether sun-red or night-blue.

Quibbles? Some gang members lack vocal power and don’t always reach the notes, only coalescing as an ensemble. There are tonal issues, too – the Jets’ most horrible action comes soon after their broadest showtune – but it is not a fault limited to this production.

As a modern Romeo and Juliet, still nothing but Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film comes close to this show. And as West Side Story is not beholden to the distant source material, it has its own, very American, allure.

Author: Mark O'Neill

Canterbury-based writer and editor with a love for cinema, literature, theatre and taking everything too seriously. He can mostly be found walking through self-checkouts.

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