Side Story -
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Libretto: Arthur Laurents
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Musical Director: Robert Mitchell
Cast: Celia Graham Maria, Norman Bowman Tony, Emma Clifford Anita and the entire cast of the Prince of Wales Theatre, London production
Original Producer, Director and Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Original Robbins Direction and Choreography: Reproduced by Alan Johnson, an original 1957 Broadway cast member
Set design: Oliver Smith
Costumes: Irene Sharaff
Venue: Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, Edinburgh
Dates: 1 - 12 May 2001toured in England and Scotland
Reviewer: Pat Napier
The never-sleeping, turbo-charged New York, home of the United Nations and mecca for the high octane lifestyle, is the setting for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, his tale of tragic young love played out against a violent clash of cultures between the dis-united nations of the city's underclasses. In 1957 America was also a simmering pot of tensions which bubbled up and often overflowed like lava. Jerome Robbins, the musical's brilliant choreographer, identified the cathartic split between the 1950s teenagers and their parents' values which led to such far-reaching new codes of life: street-based rebels such as James Dean and Marlon Brando; university-educated subversives; rock and roll music; race hatred practised against many ethnic societies, with the worst of the black-white violence still to come.
West Side Story was intended to be a modern day opera paying compliment to Romeo and Juliet, but firmly set in the melting pot of these underclasses. Bernstein's chosen clash of cultures was the recently-American influx of Puerto Ricans clashing with the mixed poor white communities of "spics, micks, kikes and Polacks", all of whom could war with any combination of their own groups at the drop of a hat. The story was told with verve, energy and humour through the surging, spiky and often-dissonant music, the memorable songs using Sondheim's marvellous words and, above all, dance - amazingly charged, expressive and evocative dance. Bernstein's intended opera, with its passionate ethnic music and lyrical songs, changed the face of musical theatre for all time.
This production, straight from London's West End, seemed somewhat unbalanced. The first act was long and too smooth in relation to the very dramatic and tense Act 2. The Jets came over as college kids coming down to the seamy side just for kicks, instead of the violent underpriviledged white teenagers living in and fighting over the same space. More could have been made of the strutting, in-your-face provocative posturing which would have raised the tension and retained the interest. Act 2, however, moved the whole drama into a much higher gear, involving the entire audience so much that the shooting shocked them into huge gasps, but resulted in embarrassed laughter which ruined the dramatic tension.
That said, West Side Story is a feast of wonderful dancing, memorable songs generally well sung, absolutely authentic dress and an always-superb orchestral score underpinning the action. Without exception, the whole-cast set pieces were exciting. The Latinos were exotic in every gesture, both in showing off their culture and when facing up to the opposition. The two lead characters were Scots: Celia Graham's clear soprano voice was perfect for Maria while Norman Bowman's Tony seemed a little throaty. Highlights were: Emma Clifford as the deliciously sexy Anita, who lit up the stage; Anybodys, the kid sister wanting to be one of the boys played by Sascha Kane; the Jet Boys singing Gee, Officer Krupke, Bernstein's and Sondheim's wicked take on teenage psychology and problems. It seems such a shame to pick out a few from such a talented cast. Go and see for yourself!
© Pat Napier. 2 May 2001