In some ways, little has changed since West Side Story – the perennially popular musical from Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – made its debut in 1957. Immigrants still face harassment in the streets. Gangs still provide a sense of power and belonging to desperate kids with little else to hold on to. And knife crime still claims young men’s lives on an appallingly regular basis.
For all that recognisable resonance, this is a show that can feel dated and over-familiar, with its Romeo and Juliet plot and its songs, which oscillate between wannabe-edgy and warblingly dainty.
Director Nikolai Foster gives his version a direct, perhaps overly reverent staging, every iconic stage picture assembled with care and precision. Migrants clutch at suitcases beneath the tattered canopy of a giant American flag. Tony and Maria sing yearning duet Somewhere while staring off into a backdrop of pink cotton candy clouds.
The production gets a real shot of energy from Ellen Kane’s lively, all-new choreography, which slips in gracefully acrobatic dives, staccato jerks and rapid pirouetting. The dancing has a sinuous muscularity which gels compellingly with the stretched notes of Bernstein’s tense, reed-driven compositions.
Suspended on a platform at the rear of the space, the band are only occasionally, strategically revealed, but they play with energy and emotion throughout, particularly shining on the score’s gentler, more lyrical passages.
Making her UK stage debut, Adriana Ivelisse brings a warm and playful quality to the lovestruck Maria, laughing joyfully even as she impatiently longs to experience life’s possibilities. Her take on I Feel Pretty sees her trying on American fashions and US accents with just the right mix of exultation and self-deprecation. Opposite her, Jamie Muscato’s bright-eyed optimist Tony feels a little subdued, but he shows off a sweetly toned voice and an impressive range. His evident gentleness during the show’s early scenes makes his sudden fall into life-destroying violence all the more poignant.
Carly Mercedes Dyer stands out, too, as an enjoyably dry Anita, calling out her friends’ unrealistic dreams and her lover’s reckless machismo with sassy confidence. On the other side of the divided neighbourhood, Isaac Gryn is memorable as hyperactive delinquent Action, a bundle of barely suppressed energy that keeps unravelling into outbursts of directionless aggression or unhinged giggling.
Designer Michael Taylor gives the production a grimy, gritty aesthetic, all grubby concrete, sweat-stained vests and towering chain-link fences which cut apart the space like the walls of a detention centre. Beyond these rusting gates stands a post-apocalyptic rubble pile strewn with burned-out TVs and abandoned appliances, the wreckage of the American pipe-dream which draws so many into unrelenting poverty and unwinnable competition.