West Side Story
New production sensibly refers back to the original staging and Jerome Robbins' balletic choreography
West Side Story's continued relevance relies heavily on the power of its inspiration, Romeo and Juliet. When the original creators, including a young Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, developed the production, it was immediately hailed as a contemporary classic.
Sondheim’s lyrics, paired with Bernstein’s music at its most lyrical and jazzy, capture the brutality of street life and the romantic aspirations of two marginalised cultures, and this production sensibly refers back to the original staging, even using Robbins’ balletic choreography. The vitality of the young cast lends the show a freshness and charm, while the slang locates the action in the 1950s without distracting from the story’s universal themes.
By refusing to update the action, this production allows the plot’s tragedy to shine, while revealing a complex characterisation: the Puerto Rican Sharks are all fragile machismo, against the thuggish American swagger of their rivals, the Jets. Robbins’ routines match a sophisticated appropriation of ballet with the sharp moves of jazz dance, impressive in technique and illustrating the seething violence that drives the star-cross’d lovers to doom.
The first act cleverly covers the main plot points, allowing the company time to explore the main themes – longing for a better life and the inevitable brutality caused by deprivation in the second. The surreal dream sequence of ‘Somewhere’ borders on the kitsch, but the impending tragedy, worked out with precision and logical inevitably, pulls the action back into gritty realism.
Musicals have a reputation for being fluffy, but West Side Story retains a visceral, pessimistic force. The big numbers are brought to show-stopping life by the cast, and Robbins’ choregraphy matches Bernstein’s grandeur beat for beat: approaching sixty, West Side Story still has the energy of a new kid on the block.
King’s Theatre, Glasgow Wed 15 Jan–Sat 25 Jan.