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West Side Story at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

West Side Story - Andy Coxon - Tony, Gabriela Garcia - Maria - image Richard Davenport of The Other Richard.
West Side Story – Andy Coxon – Tony, Gabriela Garcia – Maria – image Richard Davenport of The Other Richard.

There are probably people who love West Side Story but have turned their noses up at this reimagined production (without having seen it), performed ‘in the round’ as it is at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It’s their loss. If it were to transfer somewhere that you could get to with an Oyster Card, it would have to be a venue that could host the production in a similar configuration – Southwark Playhouse, perhaps, or The Old Vic, if the latter were prepared to transform their auditorium, as they have done previously, to an ‘in the round’ arrangement.

At the interval, I noticed something quite unique, at least to me, having left my seat to stretch my legs: where the eleven-strong orchestra plays, conducted superbly by Mark Aspinall, is visible from the foyer. The percussion instruments are in a separate isolation booth. One would, of course, have to leave the performance and go to the foyer to actually see them playing (sod that), but they did all make an appearance at curtain call. Both aspects were simple but effective ways of raising the profile of the musicians, who in musical productions don’t always get the recognition they deserve.

The seating capacity of 750 means the Royal Exchange accommodates more people than six West End theatres do (Criterion, Duchess, Duke of York’s, Fortune, St Martin’s and Vaudeville). Even so, sat in the stalls, it was a little like watching an off-West End production, in that actors would come within inches of me (and fellow front row patrons), at floor level. The choreography (Aletta Collins) is precise and exquisite, and not just because I was never in danger of being accidentally struck.

Elements of the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography would have been overkill (and, according to the show’s programme, impossible to do in the available performance space). Lively and energetic, it’s fresh and delightful.

The set design (Anna Fleischle) just about works, though more is left to the audience’s imagination than is ideal, and I wonder if I understood where each scene was set because I was already fairly familiar with the musical. There are these staircases that are only wheeled out as far the grooves in the stage will take them (not very far), but I did like the simple but inventive setup for Doc’s (David Crellin at the performance I attended, in place of Tom Hodgkins) drugstore as a gathering place for the warring factions.

The production’s most outstanding moments come when the stage is full – there are twenty-two cast members, sizeable but still smaller than most productions of West Side Story. It’s noticeable in ‘America’, for instance, when Rosalia (Bree Smith) is on her own in expressing a preference for living in Puerto Rico instead of the American mainland (as it is pointed out elsewhere, Puerto Rico is in the United States anyway). Andy Coxon’s Tony has enough stage presence to give excellent renderings of both ‘Something’s Coming’ and ‘Maria’, having the stage all to himself. Gabriela Garcia’s Maria is highly convincing, portraying the ecstatic emotions of young love as well as the inconsolable heartache when things go horribly wrong.

It’s a sad indictment on modern society that a tune like ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ should continue to be relevant, commenting as it does on the different opinions as to what led Action (Sebastian Goffin) to join the Jets and what could or should be done about it. Anita (Jocasta Almgill) is fierce and feisty, while Riff (Michael Duke) and Bernardo (Fernando Mariano) match one another for bravado and the pride of the respective gangs whose honour (for want of a better word) they seek to uphold. Gangs, fighting in the streets, tensions relating to race and immigration, crimes against the person committed using knives: it’s indicative of some elements of urban Britain today, making this retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story all the more relevant. The current run is sold out, so the Royal Exchange has already decided to bring it back in 2020. If you can make the trip up north, it is worth it and then some. A dynamic and magnificent production.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

WEST SIDE STORY marries stunning choreography to a matchless songbook – Maria, America, Somewhere, Tonight – as it translates ROMEO AND JULIET to 1950s Manhattan. It’s the Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs who make New York’s mean streets even meaner. But it’s also passionate, tender and deeply romantic – the greatest love story ever told.

Based on a conception of JEROME ROBBINS. Book by ARTHUR LAURENTS. Music by LEONARD BERNSTEIN. Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM.
Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by JEROME ROBBINS
Originally produced on Broadway by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince by arrangement with Roger L. Stevens
Produced by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited
DIRECTOR Sarah Frankcom
CHOREOGRAPHER Aletta Collins
DESIGNER Anna Fleischle
MUSICAL SUPERVISOR/ORCHESTRATOR Jason Carr
MUSICAL DIRECTOR Mark Aspinall
LIGHTING DESIGNER Lee Curran
SOUND DESIGNER Richard Brooker
COSTUME DESIGNER Polly Sullivan
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR Atri Banerjee
ASSOCIATE CHOREOGRAPHER Gareth Mole
ASSOCIATE DESIGNER Liam Bunster
ASSOCIATE LIGHTING DESGINER Jason Addison
ASSOCIATE SOUND DESIGNER Owen Lewis
ASSOCIATE SOUND DESIGNER Sorcha Steele
FIGHT DIRECTOR Kevin McCurdy
DIALECT COACH Natalie Grady
CASTING DIRECTOR Jim Arnold
ASSISTANT MUSICAL DIRECTOR Tom Chester
BSL INTERPRETER Karl Lorca

West Side Story
Royal Exchange Theatre
Manchester
https://www.royalexchange.co.uk

Book tickets for the Palace Theatre, Manchester and Manchester Opera House.

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