Theatre review: West side Story

West Side Story at the Playhouse. Picture: Ian Georgeson
West Side Story at the Playhouse. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE shabby, blue collar tenement buildings once found in New York’s Upper West Side have long since been lost to urban redevelopment, the racial tensions that stirred within them far removed from the concerns of today’s tolerant Manhattanites.

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Set in a 1950s that few can actually remember, it would be tempting to dismiss West Side Story as a kitschy period piece were it not for the unmistakable human energy that drives its every moment.

One of the first musicals to address hard-hitting social issues, its unsentimental depiction of forbidden love amidst rival teenage street gangs is famously indebted to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. From the moment in which Tony and Maria meet at a neighbourhood dance, it’s clear that their union will have tragic consequences.

Murder, betrayal and police corruption turn up at various points, ensuring that a sense of darkness is brought to the piece, but it’s by an enduring sense of hope that tonight’s audience is most affected. Even as we leave characters dead, defiled and heartbroken, no-one doubts the human spirit’s ability to triumph.

This is in no small part due to Joey McKneely’s reproduction of original choreographer Jerome Robbins’ work, the director finding beauty in even the most violent acts. Each gang is characterised by its own form of stylised machismo, the characters’ dancing contrasting with dizzying results. Of course, many songs from the original score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim have become standards in their own right. America is an obvious highlight, dismissing the challenges faced by first generation immigrants.

For two and a half hours, an accomplished cast and orchestra throw themselves into their roles with absolute, joyous enthusiasm. The result is an unforgettable production that it would be nothing less than a tragedy to miss.

Run ends March 29