West Side Story is one of the most radical musicals of all time. Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents’ show was a Hamilton-level game-changer, in the ways it used choreographic storytelling, progressed the form and grappled with urban violence, which in the 1950s, as now, was a pressing social issue.
Transplanting Romeo and Juliet to Manhattan, it features a glorious symphonic score by Bernstein, up there with the best ever written, suffused with the music of the city.
The choreography of Jerome Robbins, director of the show’s stage premiere in 1957, as well as the 1961 film, with its balletic aggression, its mixture of grace and menace, and those famous finger clicks, is part of the show’s DNA, but this can also be restrictive.
Now the estate has released its grip and we’re about to be hit with multiple West Side Stories. Nikolai Foster is directing a version for Leicester Curve with new choreography by Ellen Kane in November. Ivo van Hove is creating a new Broadway production with Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, due to open at the end of the year. Tony Kushner is also working on a new film version with Steven Spielberg.
First off the block though is Sarah Frankcom’s production, tailored to Manchester Royal Exchange’s in-the-round space, and maximising its vertical intimacy. This is outgoing artistic director Frankcom’s first major musical production. It features new choreography from Aletta Collins as well as new orchestration by Jason Carr, but while some elements work brilliantly, others struggle to transcend the constrictions of the space.
West Side Story relocates Shakespeare to a Manhattan neighbourhood in which two rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are jockeying for dominance. The Jets are American-born (though most of their parents are immigrants). The Sharks are first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants. At a local dance intended to bridge these rifts, Maria (Gabriela Garcia), sister of head Shark Bernardo, first meets ex-Jet Tony (Andy Coxon). Despite opposition from both sides, they fall deeply, instantly – and dangerously – in love.
In Frankcom’s production the characters wear 1950s-ish outfits, the girls pairing floral skirts with converse trainers, the guys in striped shirts, care of costume designer Polly Sullivan. There’s been no attempt to update or relocate. It trusts the material to resonate. Carr’s orchestrations, under musical director Mark Aspinall retains Bernstein’s urban syncopation, the parping brass and insistent cymbals.
Mexican-born Garcia is a deceptively delicate Maria. Though slight and sweet-voiced, she nails the sense of a young woman eager to taste all the world has to offer. She’s desperate to unshackle herself from the feeble Chino and meet someone who sets her heart ablaze. When we first see her she’s begging Anita (Jocasta Almgill) to make her demure white dress sexier. There’s an underlying sense that if she didn’t meet Tony, there would have been someone else soon enough. Her thirst is palpable.
Garcia combines a clear, operatic voice with an appealing youthful passion, warming into the role. Coxon is a bit damp in comparison, at least initially, but his voice grows in richness and his performance becomes more forceful in the darker second half. There’s real tenderness between them.
Collins’ choreography dispenses with some of the flashiness of the original, gone are the gazelle-like leaps and pivots of the street brawls. It feels more athletic and compact, in part out of necessity. The cast spring and swing over Anna Fleischle’s minimalist, multi-level set. This consists of a series of white glass and metal structures that double as jungle gym and a network of fire-escapes and balconies. It’s austere but effective – the city reduced to a chalk-outline. Lighting designer Lee Curran discretely highlights this in red, white and blue.
Some numbers work better than others. America – a song that immaculately captures the immigrant experience, from the complex interplay of push and pull factors to the ever-shifting sense of what one considers home – feels a bit underpowered. It suffers most from being reduced in scale, turned into a conversation between the female Puerto Rican characters (though this at least stops it from descending into a gendered argument between acquisitive girls and proud boys). There are audibility issues too, and some of Stephen Sondheim’s sublimely witty lyrics get swallowed up.
The fight scenes are more successful. The pivotal rumble has a volatile energy, as the “clean fight” rapidly descends into violence. Collins, working with fight director Kevin McCurdy, has the actors tussling and colliding in a plausibly scrappy fashion before tragedy strikes.
Somewhere is another highlight. It features a powerful sequence in which the slain Riff and Bernardo perform a moving duet where they rest their chins on each other’ shoulders, almost tenderly. Their movements become increasingly combative before they are borne aloft on their gang-mates’ shoulders as police tape is wound around the set.
Michael Duke’s Riff is a stronger mover than he is a singer, but he has very eloquent hips. Almgill’s Anita has one of the strongest voices in the ensemble and she delivers the jagged A Boy Like That with anger and aplomb.
West Side Story is not so much a love story, as a lust story and a want story. A story of being young and seeking a place in the world. It’s a bleak story too – oh, boy, is it bleak – but it’s also a deeply compassionate one. Frankcom’s production brings all of that out beautifully, while still throwing in a few finger clicks.