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Review of West Side Story at The Great Hall, Bishopsgate Institute

West Side StoryThe Bishopsgate Institute is a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street Station. Step inside the Great Hall and you are instantly transported to an Upper West Side Manhattan basketball court framed by chain-linked fence and scaffolding reminiscent of the towering fire escapes associated with the city’s architecture. This is the setting for the Institute’s take on Jerome Robbins’ 1957 masterpiece, West Side Story, directed by Toby Hine.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the game-changing musical charts the forbidden love story of Tony (James Gower-Smith) and Maria (Emily McDouall), both reluctantly associated with rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks respectively.

The two-sided traverse seating immerses the audience in the story with the 28-piece orchestra capping the far end of the hall. It is wonderful to see the orchestra fully visible and able to directly play off the reactions of the 39-strong cast while also getting their own moments to shine.

Ben Ferguson ably leads the orchestra through Bernstein and Sondheim’s epic score of soaring ballads, intricate fugues and infectious “Mambo” grooves. His direction ensures the hearts of the audience members swell with the orchestra.

Gower-Smith is suitably wide-eyed as love-struck Tony and McDouall evokes a delightful feistiness as Maria. Their voices blend well and McDouall’s clean soft soprano tone is particularly breath-taking. Luke Leahy confidently struts across the space as Riff, the ringleader of the Jets, leading his gang’s numbers “Cool” and “Jet Song” with macho camaraderie. Similarly, Christopher Georgiou is appropriately fierce as Shark leader, Bernardo.

Victoria Greenway is triumphant as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, delivering a performance full of sass and flare. Her rendition of the duet “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love” with McDouall is a storytelling treat on the eyes and ears. The direction of the particularly violent scene in the second act involving Anita and the Jets feels a little overdrawn out and unnecessary to portray the horror of the events that take place in the current #metoo climate.

Stewart Charlesworth’s costume design effectively divides the cast visually into the two clans: the Jets and their ladies in pastel shades while the Sharks are donned in brighter hues. The Latino women’s bright dresses adorned with black lace makes their group number “America” particularly eye-catching and colourful.

The lively choreography by Lemington Ridley, Chris Whittaker, Katie Bradley and Guy Salim is reminiscent of Robbins’ original work. The familiar leaps and finger clicks have been re-staged to accommodate the seating arrangement and incorporate the cabaret tables in the front row, ensuring the audience are mere inches from the action. The cast deliver the choreography reasonably well given the show’s amateur status.

Jack Weir’s lighting design makes lovely use of different cold and warm tones to reflect the scenes of conflict and romance but occasionally feels a little too dark at the top of some numbers. For example in “Something’s Coming”, it doesn’t seem like Tony is visible enough at the start but as the number progresses he comes into full view. The creative choice is understandable if a little extreme.

Tony Gayle’s sound design misses the mark in some places with audible rustling microphones and some soloists only being heard acoustically for some numbers. The orchestra is well balanced though and the strings can be well heard over the brass and reed players.

You would be fooled that this is a fully fledged professional production at times, which is part of producer Francesca Canty’s ethos: pairing amateur performers with professional creatives and musicians. This successful re-imagination of West Side Story is an excellent retelling of the gritty heart-wrenching epic.

4 stars

Review by Fiona Scott

West Side Story is set on the streets of New York’s Upper West Side and explores the rivalry between two gangs, The Jets and The Sharks. Amidst all the gang warfare, Tony from The Jets falls in love with Maria, who is the sister of the leader of The Sharks. The dark themes, sophisticated music score and electric writing bring the story of Romeo and Juliet into the 20th century.

The Bishopsgate Institute production of West Side Story with full orchestra will be performed between 26 June and 1 July 2018 to celebrate the centennials of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, who composed West Side Story, and of Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original production. This high-quality amateur production is presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) and ties in seamlessly with themes highlighted in Bishopsgate Institute’s special collections and archives which contain images and materials exploring cultural tensions and post-war daily urban life in both New York and London. The piece is based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, with music written by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim.

This production is under amateur licence and the actors are amateurs, but the creative team and the orchestra are multi-award nominated professionals who have been invited to ensure the highest quality of experience for the cast and audience, in line with Bishopsgate Institute’s philosophy. The production will be directed by Toby Hine and choreographed by Lemington Ridley, with Ben Ferguson as Musical Director, Ashley Jacobs as Associate Musical Director and Jack Weir as Lighting Designer. The show will be produced by Francesca Canty for Bishopsgate Institute.

The West Side Story Company
Maria Emily McDouall
Tony James Gower-Smith
Anita Victoria Greenway
Riff Luke Leahy
Bernardo Christopher Georgiou
Anybody’s Lauren Pears
Doc Stephen Hewitt
Krupke Drew Paterson
Schrank Will Howells
Rosalia Louisa Roberts
Velma Claire Pattie
Somewhere Girl Marsha Blake

The Jets
Joshua Yeardley (Action)
Charlie Smith (Baby John)
Glen Jordan (A-Rab)
Chris Hughes-Copping (Big Deal)
Ben Woolley (Diesel)
Callum Walsh (Snowboy)
Adrian Hirschmuller
Lora Jones
Jessie Davidson (Graziella)
Tess Robinson
Caroline Scott
Sofia Sjostrand
Jennifer Thompson
Rachel Wheeler
Martha Stone
The Sharks
Francois Vanhoutte (Chino)
Dan Davies
Motohiro Okubo
James Monz
Leoncio Hernandez
Chloe Heatlie
Mariana Alfaro
Lois Howarth
Beatrice Mori
Paris Evans
Vicky Gkioni
Gamze Ozen

Website: www.bishopsgate.org.uk
Twitter: @Bishopsgatelnst
Instagram: @BishopsgateInstitute

Listings Information:
Dates: 26 June – 1 July 2018
West Side Story
The Great Hall
Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH

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2 thoughts on “Review of West Side Story at The Great Hall, Bishopsgate Institute”

  1. Coula Georgiou

    Amazing performance. Found it very entertaining and brilliant acting. Both the cast and the orchestra was unbelievable.

  2. Chriso Chrysostomou

    This was a very enjoyable performance. Congratulations to all involved. Acting, singing, dancing, the musicians & conductor were spectacular!

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