West Side Story

Venue: Stanley Theatre Dates: 14 November 2002 - 12 January 2003

Director: Bill Millerd Choreographer: Valerie Easton
Musical Director: Bruce Kellett

Reviewer: John Jane

Those of us who saw Robert Wise's 1961 film West Side Story had no problems identifying it as being based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. A more curious, yet perhaps less well known fact, is that Shakespeare borrowed from a poem by Arthur Brooke, who thirty years earlier had penned The Tragedy of Romeus & Juliet. In West Side Story Romeo and Juliet are transposed from sixteenth-century Italy to become Tony and Maria in New York City's Upper West Side.

When Jerome Robbins opened his Broadway production, it was generally accepted that he had set new benchmarks in modern choreography and musical theatre. The Arts Club Theatre production, performed at the renovated Stanley Theatre, remains virtually faithful to the original in language and style.

On claiming one's seat when first entering the theatre, we are initially struck by Alison Green's well constructed set recalling the bleak 1950s New York inner city. In the dazzling opening scene, we see an extended dance sequence with numerical superiority alternating between The Jets and The Sharks. This establishes a tough urban atmosphere that will prevail throughout.

A little imagination is needed to see some of the principal performers as adolescents. However, this is only a minor distraction. What is lacking in physical credibility is more than made up for in polished professional performance. The acting component is competent but not memorable.

The drama of West Side Story lies less in narration, however, than in movement. Where the cast really excels is assimilating the tensions and emotions of turf war through dance form and vocal delivery. In particular, Terra MacLeod was solid as the tempestuous Anita, who illuminates in the kinetic "America" sequence. She also comes closest to getting a Puerto Rican accent to sound authentic.

The Stanley Theatre is an ideal venue for this production. The management have shown remarkable innovation in overcoming the obstacles in converting the former cinema to a theatre. With the absence of an orchestra pit, the six-member band are positioned behind the stage, and remain invisible to the audience until they appear on stage with the entire cast at the end of the performance to acknowledge the audience applause.

The story of two lovers challenging bigotry and circumstances beyond their control, and in the end failing valiantly, has always been a staple for good theatre.

West Side Story runs at the Stanley Theatre until mid-January. Be sure not to miss it.

© 2002, John Jane