West Side is the best

Tom Bonnick is impressed by the musical classic at the Theatre Royal

Revived for its 50th anniversary, and briefly in Glasgow as part of a world tour that has earned global acclaim, the arrival of West Side Story — frequently described with breathless hyperbole of the “best musical ever” variety — to each new city carries the weight of ever-increasing, overwhelming expectation.

Few — if any — other dramas could survive such attention. However, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins have created a story that is not only hugely ambitious in its execution, but also robust enough to withstand a half-century of scrutiny — though of course, a little credit must go to Mr. Shakespeare for providing the original material of Romeo and Juliet.

I had always thought of West Side Story as a fertile source of mockery — all that prancing and clicking — and little else, and yet on stage it is truly spectacular; flirting with tongue in cheek but never camp. This production, by now finely-honed to a sharp point, features choreography, voices, set design and music which are all as technically perfect as one could ever expect.

Under the direction of Joey McKneely, the story has a renewed sense of urgency, and adeptly sidesteps becoming pastiche or parody of the well-loved film. The prevailing racism of the Jets gang remains as shocking as it has ever been, never more than in the climactic, terrible rape of Anita, and the sudden explosion of violence after incipient, brewing tension acts a powerful emotional conceit.

Sofia Escobaras as Maria is particularly efficient; naïve and seductive by turn, and though, along with Lana Gordon’s Anita, the female leads tend to eclipse Ryan Silverman’s portrayal of Tony — which often comes across as rather dull — the chemistry between the leads is convincing enough to be enjoyable.

If nothing else, this production has proven that the story still contains a vitality and relevance that puts most modern musicals to shame.


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