Sunday 26 January 2020

looking better with age

West Side Story is brought bang up-to-date in this spectacular production, says Anne Marie Scanlon

Anne Marie Scanlon

All fiftysomethings should look so good. The current touring production of the classic musical West Side Story is as fresh and vibrant as its young and attractive cast.

Based on Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, West Side Story encompasses a huge range of themes – young love, star-crossed love, the generation gap, racism, violence and gang warfare, all of which are as relevant today as they were in 1957 when the show originally opened on Broadway, and indeed as when the Montagues and Capulets were squaring off against each other.

For anyone unfamiliar with the plot of Jerome Robbin's updated version of Shakespeare, West Side Story is set in 1950s New York City where newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrant Maria falls in love with American Tony, whose gang The Jets are rivals to The Sharks, led by Maria's brother Bernardo.

As the pair fall in love with each other, the gang feud worsens ending in violence and death.

However, West Side Story isn't just a Shakespearean tragedy in "modern" dress, nor is it simply a musical, as the dancing is as important to the story as the songs or the acting. Director and choreographer Joey McKneely uses the full original Jerome Robbins choreography, which is quite spectacular and combines a vast variety of dance styles from balletic to athletic.

The very simple set designed by Paul Gallis, which incorporates images of 50s New York City, and the impressive lighting by Peter Halbsgut combine to form the perfect backdrop for the dancers and actors to shine. Often in musical theatre, the acting takes a back seat to the singing and dancing.

In this production, all of the principal cast members playing Tony, Maria, Anita, Riff and Bernardo put in strong, believable performances. Even though they are part of such a strong cast, Katie Hall as Maria and Djalenga (pronounced Jalenka) Scott as Anita (Bernardo's girlfriend) stand out, as they give astonishing performances.

Hall has an absolutely beautiful voice and is extremely plausible as the young, naive Maria. By rights, someone as talented as Hall should be the star of the show, but that plaudit must go to Scott, who quite simply blows everyone else off the stage. She can sing, dance and act and looks pretty good while doing it. The superb America dance number featuring Scott is alone worth the ticket price.

America, like many of the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim songs in the production, is so ingrained in our cultural soundtrack that it's easy to forget that it and numbers such as Maria, Tonight, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere (There's a Place for Us) were originally part of a Broadway show. The over-familiarity with these numbers is more of a challenge than an advantage for any director, and musical supervisor Donald Chan has managed to make these old favourites sound fresh and vital.

I was almost moved to tears by Tony and Maria's Somewhere duet, a song that has been become sullied by overuse in TV talent shows – it's amazing what good voices and lack of syrup can do.

Despite the fact that the action all revolves around teenagers, this is not Hollyoaks – I watched a sold-out matinee performance surrounded by senior citizens and school children and both groups seemed to enjoy it enormously. And while this production of West Side Story can be recommended on its own merits as well worth seeing, there's the added bonus that one day you can tell your grandchildren that you saw Djalenga Scott live on stage.

Bord Gais Energy Theatre, October 29-November 9. Tickets start at €17.50 and are on sale now through Ticketmaster. Group Bookings 01 677 7770, Ticketmaster dedicated line 0818 719 377. The Circle Club and Hospitality bookings 01 674 2407. For more information www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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