Directors: Alex Wilson, Nick Armfield
Musical Director: Matthew Trotter
Producers: Anna Thirkettle, Howard Thompson, Lewis Chandler
Choreographers: Amy Walsh, Rosie Peters
West Side Story transports Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Verona to 1950s New York. The Puerto Rican Sharks spar with The American Jets, whilst Tony and Maria enact their romance against the turmoil. CHMS’s production is admirable, yet overall it left me feeling like I was panning for gold; it’s ambitious, and there are certainly nuggets of the shiny stuff there – it just takes a little while to get to them.
Emilie Smith as Anita and Matthew Lecznar as Bernardo carried the performance. Their portrayals of the feisty Puerto Rican couple were poised, confident, and delved effectively and sensitively into the difficulties facing an immigrant in 1950s New York. Lecznar utilized his skills as a dancer to create an imposing, patriotic, and adequately greased, figure on stage. Smith’s intuitive sense of humour shone through, as did her versatility, as she grappled with the portrayal of an assertive modern woman, siren, grieving girlfriend, and finally victim of a sexual attack. Despite technical problems in ‘America’, which Lottie Johnson as Rosalia handled credibly, the scene oozed with sensuous and ferocious Latino vigour; the scene was a highlight of the first half.
Other standout performances include Pete Watts as Action, George Morgan as Arab, Tristan Landymore as Baby John, Luke de Belder as Chino, and a good vocal performance from Tom Jones as Riff. Simone Ibbett-Brown also deserves a mention for her wonderfully uncomfortable portrayal of Glad Hand; similarly Sarah Norvock’s vocal performance of ‘Somewhere’ was touching and strong. Those who attend West Side Story will find a set as adaptable and imposing as some of the musical’s leads, an orchestra that tackles Bernstein’s score with dexterity, a cast with impeccable vocal talents, and some really gorgeous performances.
There are unfortunately problems with CHMS’s West Side Story. Firstly, although the central characters Maria and Tony, played by Ana Beard-Fernández and Caolan Keaveney, were vocally outstanding, they needed further direction with regards to their acting. During the song ‘I feel pretty’ Fernández’s voice was frail and inviting, yet her portrayal lacked sass, which is integral for the humour, and sheer joy which her character feels. Indeed in Tony’s song ‘Maria’ Keaveney was static, passive, and despite the intensity of his vocals, did not command the stage at all. ‘Tonight’ was a feast for the ears with Fernández soaring over the final note; but once again the acting was un-emotive. As a result it was difficult to engage with the couple’s romance, and despite the directors’ intention to portray the dark side of gang culture, the heady, feverish, and desperate pangs of love were not construed.
Secondly, the opening overture was over long in this instance, and it was a shame that the orchestra could not have been in the audiences’ view. This was sluggishly followed by a dance piece which failed to set the necessary iconic mood, and a dialogue distorted by out-of-breath delivery. The problem lies in choosing a musical so reliant on dance; where the body’s sharp lines, impeccable timing, and overall confidence, are of paramount importance. And whilst the cast’s singing and acting was impeccable, their dancing was not. It would have been a mean feat for any choreographer to pull off, and unfortunately the result was rather flat. Lazy choreography choices include the ever-present Jones-special back flip, a guaranteed crowd pleaser to detract from wilting arms and off timing. I was also disappointed with the rumble and the meeting of Tony and Maria at the dance; both are climactic in differing ways, however the focus was drawn away from the respective central narratives by surplus tableaux.
Undoubtedly, this was not the case throughout; as afore mentioned, ‘America’ was electric, and The Jets’ ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ reduced the entire theatre to raucous laughter. Pete Watts deserves a particular mention here. The first half is lack-lustre, but the second does all it can to enliven the pace and increase the tension before the finale. I do commend those tackling this iconic production, but unfortunately the standard of last year’s Into the Woods and the ghosts of West Side Stories past have set the bar just a little too high.