Review: West Side Story, Royal Exchange

Aletta Collins’ new choreography is just one of the highlights of a most successful West Side Story at the Royal Exchange

“Sleep well and when you dream
Dream of me”

For an undoubted classic of the musical theatre, West Side Story really isn’t revived all that often but 2019 seems determined to rectify that. The Curve have announced it as their Christmas show, Ivo van Hove is reimagining it on Broadway, and Steven Spielberg is remaking the film for good measure. But getting the (beautifully balletic) jump on all of them is Manchester’s Royal Exchange, whose revival is the first to be performed with new choreography replacing the iconic moves of original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

And only naturally, Sarah Frankcom’s production soars when it puts Aletta Collins’ new moves front and centre. They are certainly recognisably inspired by Robbins but there’s an unmistakeable freshness that is just beautiful to watch and there’s something great about the fact they’re all doing it in Converse. The repeated ronds de jambe are iconic in their own way, an emotional grace is suffused throughout, and hints of contemporary nod to the physicality of two warring gangs, coiled bodies poised on Anna Fleischle’s climbing frame design. Fleischle has also maximised the floor space of the Exchange to great effect, the aesthetic is pure dance and it works.

Emphasising the youth of its leads, the central pair are cast well. As Maria, Gabriela Garcia has the kind of gorgeous sweet and open smile that you could imagine would bring about racial harmony in and of itself. And there’s no doubting Andy Coxon’s appeal as the genial Tony and together, they make a more than decent fist of the vocal challenges of Bernstein’s score (they don’t write ’em like this with proper soprano roles any more). ‘Tonight’ is blissful, their extended farewell supremely cute, ‘One Hand One Heart’ a dream of spine-tingling potential.

Jocasta Almgill storms it as the ferociously passionate Anita. Her chemistry with Fernando Mariano’s Bernardo is off the scale and her affectionate takedown of her homeland in ‘America’ is superb, delivered here to Bree Smith’s Rosalia as opposed to the film’s reworked boys vs girls dynamic. Emily Langham’s small but crucial interventions as Anybodys shine throughout, particularly in the hushed beauty of ‘Somewhere’ and in a company full of exceptional movement, Michael Lin was a real stand-out for me. Credit too to MD Mark Aspinall whose top-notch band deliver Jason Carr’s new orchestrations with real skill.

If I’m being brutally honest though, there is something about the second act which is a little difficult. As heady as teenage love can be, Maria forgiving her brother’s killer so easily and not only that, convincing Anita of her cause too, still feels a tough sell to me (she’s known him, what 48 hours at most?). And the Jets delivering the knockabout comedy of ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ on the spot where their leader was just killed is odd (as much a problem of the placing of the song in the show, I think). A comment on the mindless stupidness of boys in gangs perhaps, it doesn’t carry anywhere near enough anger to be a true anti-authority anthem.

I’m being picky though, for there is much to enjoy and to really appreciate here, not least the musical majesty of ‘Quintet’ and the dancing, oh, the dancing!

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: The Other Richard
West Side Story is booking at the Royal Exchange until 25th May, stalk the website for returns or queue for £10 dayseats from 9.30am each morning

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