Last night, I went to the opening night of West Side Story at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre. The musical has sold out internationally on its tour, and boasts second place on Film4’s Top 50 Musicals list. The hype surrounding it was huge, and I expected the show to be even bigger.
And I was not disappointed.
The story is one that’s well-known and easily understood. It’s Romeo and Juliet, set during the gang wars of 1950’s Manhattan. On the Jets, we have Anton ‘Tony’, who dreams of a better life than the fighting and rumbles. Sister of the Shark’s leader Bernardo is the sweet and naive Maria. They meet, they fall in love, and all Hell breaks loose as love tries to conquer racism and the confines of the era.
Allow me first to tell you about our leads; Tony and Maria. It was opening night, and the show was without its Tony; we were greeted by their understudy, Dom Hodson. His voice lacked power and enthusiasm in the group and fight scenes, but for the softer romantic numbers, he was perfect. Likewise Maria, played by Katie Hall, was as trill and innocent as she should be. The acting was great too; in the dress shop scene, you really believe they are in love, and the chemistry is intoxicating.
But for me, the real stars of the show came from Anita (Djalenga Scott) and Riff (Jack Wilcox). Wilcox showed a mastery of dance in the synchronised dance numbers, leading truly breathtaking displays of ballet meets warfare. He moved with easy grace that managed to be both tense and aggressive. His voice could melt, especially when singing ‘Cool’. Likewise Scott provided some latina sex appeal with her rendition of ‘America’. Her role as the seductive and sassy Anita was pulled off with such flare that I found myself mesmerised by her every move. She dominated on stage.
If you think this is a love story though, I strongly suggest you bring tissues. Passed the comically inept adults and the breathtaking dancing, this is a tragedy. The award for most heartbreaking moments go to Scott for her breakdown over the death of Bernardo and a scene later when she is attacked by the Jets, and to Hall for her soul-shattering monologue at the show’s finale. Both women managed to bring tears to my eyes with ease.
The staging of the show was unparalleled. Never before have I seen such simple scenery utilised to show such a broad landscape. Two wooden scaffolds with fire escapes moved to act as interiors and exteriors of the Jets and Sharks territory. They were flawless for the iconic fire escape scene between Tony and Maria, and it was easy to forget just how subtle the background was, perfect for the Manhattan slums.
A moment must be taken to talk about the music and dance. While the lines are ham-fisted and awkward at times, the lyrics composed by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim are as brilliant now as they were at their conception. From the powerful ballads of ‘One Hand, One Heart’, to the comedy songs like ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, the words sung have the power to draw any emotion from you. The songs, though, were not my favourite part of the night. It was the dancing. Choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the dancing was without a doubt the highlight of the night. Although it was a tad overplayed and drawn out in the ballet sequence of the second act, it was weaved throughout the performance effortless. It created tension between the gangs, between lovers, and was seamlessly sexy and appropriate. Watching one dancer pull off such a feat is always a treat, but when it’s up to seven at a time in constant synchronisation, it is a rare and valuable sight.
It was a standing ovation evening from start to finish, and one truly deserved by all.
If you can, I urge you to buy a ticket. The show runs until 12th October, and it is well worth the money. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be struck silent by the immaculate performance. Take a friend, and enjoy the emotions together. And with any luck, you won’t have to hurry home after to meet a midnight deadline like some of us did. An easy five stars, and I can’t wait to see this show again!