Review: West Side Story

The ambition of CHMS’s production of West Side Story is commendable, but unfortunately the standard of previous productions have allowed the bar to be set just a little too high. reviews

WSS 13

Directors: Alex Wilson, Nick Armfield
Musical Director: Matthew Trotter
Producers: Anna Thirkettle, Howard Thompson, Lewis Chandler
Choreographers: Amy Walsh, Rosie Peters
Rating: ★★★☆☆

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.


  1. To give CHMS’ production of West Side Story a rating of 3 Stars is an unfair portrayal of a performance that had the audience captivated from beginning to end. The emotional connection that was felt between Keaveney and Beard-Fernandez came across sumptuously to the audience and this was reflected in the stunned silence that came across the room throughout the final scenes. Similarly, the simplicity of ‘Maria’ showed the nature of Tony’s feelings for his new love and I felt any additions to the acting would have drawn away from the raw emotion on display.

    Furthermore, “the over long” overture is necessary in this production as it is part of the wonderful score provided by Bernstein and perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the musical. The band dealt excellently with a very demanding score and was expertly lead under the leadership of Matthew Trotter.

    It is no doubt that West Side Story is an ambitious piece and I felt that for an amateur student production there was a professional sheen to it that transcended any mistakes that may have occurred on opening night. While the choreography was not flawless, the ambition of Walsh and Peters was reflected in the tenacity of the larger numbers and truly had the audience engaged.

    Commendations should not be given to those who undertook this iconic production, congratulations should.

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  2. SONDHEIM’S SCORE?! Oh, Nouse…

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  3. “Lecznar used his skills as a dancer to create … [an] adequately greased figure on stage.” Surely that’s worth an extra star?

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  4. I feel that this is an unfair representation of West Side Story – taking into account how extremely difficult it is to find people who are talented at dancing, singing AND acting, they did extremely well. I know for a fact that all my friends and I felt deeply connected with both Caolan and Ana, who were stunning in their performances. As for the ‘over-long overture’, it’s as Oran said – part of the score and necessary to play as BERNSTEIN is an immeasurably brilliant composer and his music is, and was last night, a joy to listen to. I feel that 4/5 would be much more fitting, with one deducted due to occasional unfortunate technical issues and every now and then a mistiming in the choreography.

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  5. I’m sorry but I do not think we were watching the same production. I completely agree with Oran. Nobody in the auditorium was under the impression that we were watching this on the West End but despite that, everyone’s performances were absolutely brilliant. Oran is right in saying that from the beginning everybody was captivated until the very end.

    Addressing the points, I agree that the initial musical piece lasted a little bit too long but that was completely overshadowed by an excellent opening sequence and the fact that the musicians were flawless throughout the entire performance. The fighting mixed with dance was absolutely fantastic and deservedly earned a round of applause (and some woops). Dancing at times was out of sync but the professionalism of the performers kicked in and was soon rectified; as a whole the choreography was fantastic and full credit to Smith, Lecznar and Jones (to name but a few) who were outstanding throughout.

    Referring to acting, every character was professional and enthralling throughout, especially Maria and Tony. To put them in the same bracket as the rest of the characters is wrong, the point is that Tony and Maria are not like the rest of the ensemble. In a way, I believe Maria worked perfectly as her voice demonstrated innocence which I believe works with the plot very well. I must also give credit to Watts who, after LSH as well, is proving to be an excellent talent.

    Alex Wilson, Nick Armfield, Matthew Trotter, Anna Thirkettle, Howard Thompson, Lewis Chandler, Amy Walsh and Rosie Peters deserve a lot of credit to a fantastic production. I’m going on a bit as I was also meant to review this but I must say I disagree with a lot of this. The crowd reflected the excellent performance and production at the end and I must say this rendition of West Side Story will be hard to top at my time at this university. 4.5/5 out of 5 stars from me. Well done to everybody.

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  6. There’s nothing more embarassing than people involved in a production that gets a bad review berating the reviewer and justifying why its a good show. Regardless of whether or not WSS was actually any, it’s just a bit pathetic really. This is one persons opinion and if you don’t like what the reviewer says about the show you’re involved in: just get over it. You just make yourself look worse by complaining about the review…

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  7. That should have read *regardless of whether or not WSS was actually any good.

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  8. To Anonymous,

    As somebody that wasn’t remotely involved in the production, we are also allowed our opinions and there is a commenting system for a reason. How about not ‘berating’ the people that also want to express their opinions about the show and the review?

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  9. 14 Feb ’13 at 10:44 pm

    Amanda Laidler

    I must say my reaction was the same as Ed Moore: did the reviewer see the same show? I (a theatre professional) attended with a professional choreographer and we were all very impressed by the standards attained by a non-professional cast. this was a production full of energy, edginess and tension. The high comedy in some scenes served to heighten the tragedy. I have seen many productions of West Side Story and it was a real pleasure to see young gang lads dancing, rather than dancers trying to act gang members. And the ending was deeply moving. Our congratulations to all concerned.

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  10. 16 Feb ’13 at 2:29 pm

    Michael Butcliffe.

    It wasn’t a bad show, but it wasn’t a good show. Anyone who says it was amazing must be a cheap date seeing as they are so easily impressed.

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  11. 19 Feb ’13 at 3:23 pm

    Joshua Throbson

    It is funny how people tend to use such bombastic language when they’re slightly annoyed. I for one just go to my quiet place.

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