Katie Hall stars in West Side Story at Playhouse

Katie Hall as Maria Louis Maskell as Tony in West Side Story. Picture: Comp
Katie Hall as Maria Louis Maskell as Tony in West Side Story. Picture: Comp
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WALK past the Playhouse this week and you’d be forgiven for thinking you had accidently wandered into New York’s upper west side.

The iconic venue has had been given a make-over to celebrate the arrival of the smash hit musical West Side Story.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is set in mid-50s New York and tells of the rivalry between two ethnic street gangs, the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

When Jet Tony falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks it can only spell trouble, with tragic consequences.

However, it’s not just the Playhouse that has had a make-over. I’d Do Anything hopeful Katie Hall, too, has been transformed to allow her to play Maria.

“I couldn’t believe it when they cast me because I am a white, blonde girl. The furthest thing you could possibly be away from being Puerto Rican,” she says. “My initial reaction was, ‘Really? How?’

“So, now, I have a wig and I have to have a weekly spray-tan.”

Once bewigged and with tan in place, seeing Maria come alive in her dressing room mirror was a “big thing”, admits Hall.

“In rehearsal, everybody just looks like themselves. The first time you put on the costumes, the wig, and the make-up is really like putting on the final layer, adding the final piece of the puzzle to find the character.”

Hall, who has toured to the Capital twice before, first as Cosette in Les Miserables, then as Christine in Phantom Of The Opera, believes that Maria is her most challenging role to date.

“I have never done a show that has left me so emotionally ravaged as I am by West Side Story,” she says.

“There is just something about it that is so raw. I cry every single day. The emotional journey this show takes you on... I have never experienced anything like it.”

With a libretto by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was adapted for the screen in 1961.

Songs like Maria, America and Somewhere, quickly made it a hit, and there have been many productions over the years.

Where this one differs is in the age of the cast. Producer Howard Panter of the Ambassadors Theatre Group, once told me it was his vision that the actors should be as near to the age of the teenage gang members they play as possible - in previous productions, 30-somethings would usually be found trying to recapture their youth.

It’s an approach Hall believes adds energy to the show.

“It’s brilliant. We are six months in now and I am really enjoying it. We have 19-year-olds who are not far off the age the kids would have been - for many it’s their first job out of college - so there is an awful lot of energy.”

Hall, herself 23, deliberately avoided watching the famous movie version before playing the role, she says. “It’s very important that you come in and don’t copy, even unintentionally, what has gone before. With the director I had to find a way to make it truthful to me.”

The actress has certainly come a long way since vying to be Nancy in Oliver! by taking part in the BBC talent search I’d Do Anything.

“Oh god,” she exclaims. “I was 17, it was a really long time ago and I genuinely feel like I was a different person back then. It’s all gone rather quickly.”

Knowing what she now knows, however, Hall insists that given her time over, she would happily follow the same path.

“Definitely. I wouldn’t be here now without that programme. I just got very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. The right people saw me and I would definitely do it all over again.”

Not that there was ever any doubt in Hall’s mind that she would have a career in musical theatre. Even as a child there was only ever one option.

“I was at home, at my parents house, the other weekend, going through a file that they have on me. In it was an old school report from one of my teachers. It is absolutely hilarious.

“It says things like: ‘You were absolutely adamant that you were going to have a career on the stage. There was no point in considering any other career path for you because that was what you were going to do’.

“My teacher sounds quite cross in the report. I remember the meeting. She kept asking what else I’d like to do and there was nothing. I was going to be Christine in the Phantom Of The Opera - that’s what I used to say.

“I think I was probably quite insufferable about it all,” she laughs.

West Side Story, Playhouse, Greenside place, until 29 March, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £15-£45, 0844-871 3014