Reviewed by Nikki Cotter
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expectation has been at an almighty high since West Side Story was announced as part of the Royal Exchanges Spring/Summer 2019 season. So successful of late has the theatre been at reimagining classic musicals the run had almost sold-out before the first preview even took place.
This epic tale based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet sees star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria fighting to be together in 1950’s Manhattan where warring gangs make the rules and stepping into enemy territory is strictly taboo. As a story there is everything from love and conflict to hope and heartbreak as the Sharks and Jets fierce rivalry shapes their very existence.
Since it first premiered in 1955 Jerome Robbins choreography is something that’s always come as part and parcel of any West Side Story production. So iconic in its style it’s hard to imagine the Sharks and the Jets moving in any other way. Step forward Aletta Collins who not only takes on the challenge of reimagining the instantly recognisable choreography but does so in the most beautifully inspired way.
There are still enough elements of the original choreography to keep the traditionalists amongst us happy but these elements are now combined with a pulsating fusion of Latin, street, lindy hop, jazz and even a touch of northern soul to create the most vibrant melting pot of movement.
Director Sarah Frankom ensures this new choreography is allowed to take centre stage as moments of breath-taking beauty unfold; highlighted perfectly during the switch from punchy ensemble piece to the stillness of Tony and Maria’s first meeting which bursts with joyful innocence. A genuine moment of calm & purity during the heady tension of the dancehall scene.
The cast are outstanding and as an ensemble work together to perfection, fuelled by hatred, fear, anger, love and loss, they fizz with pent up emotion. The era is unspecific making it feel just as relevant today as it did 62 years ago as we seemingly are once again in the midst of a swathe of violent knife crime.
Andy Coxon finds the true heart of Tony, delivering a powerful and emotive performance; his rendition of Maria a real highlight while fellow lead Gabriela García is completely captivating as Maria. Her operatic vocals are note perfect and pure. Their duets are sublime while the innocence of their love is blissfully uplifting.
Jocasta Almgill is superb and sassy as streetwise Anita, Fernando Mariano makes for a passionate and proud Bernardo while Michael Duke as Riff is convincing and committed.
The cast make full use of Anna Fleischle’s innovative design which is skilfully lit by Lee Curran. They weave, jump and balance on Fleischle’s vertical geometric sets, one minute gone, the next high up emerging from the shadows. The balcony scenes in particular during Tonight really showing off the impressive staging of this piece as each character vies for the audience’s attention, from all sides of the theatre’s intimate space.
The eleven piece orchestra powerfully deliver Leonard Bernstein’s classic score with new arrangements by Jason Carr giving it a modern and fresh feel. Led by Tom Chester the score is packed with emotion and fundamental to the impact of this piece.
The Royal Exchange have created something truly special here, the standing ovation a clear indicator that this production marks another success for the innovative Manchester theatre makers. Bold, inspired theatre at its best.
West Side Story is on at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 25th May tickets can be found here.