West Side Story Review | Royal Exchange | Manchester
Royal Exchange audiences are kept in the middle of old rivalries as the Sharks and Jets fight over their turf. In a classic love story that reimagines Romeo and Juliet's houses as rival street gangs, the Montagues and Capulets are given light and jazzy choreography in a contemporary adaption that pins American/Jets and Puerto Ricans/Sharks on the rough streets of New York.
The original 1957 Broadway production, directed and choreographed by the Tony award-winning Jerome Robbins, stunned audiences with its mixture of operatic love songs and striking dance routines. After being transformed for the screen in 1961, West Side Story took (and continues to hold) the record for the highest number of Academy Awards for a musical. It’s ten Oscar stronghold has built a fanbase who continue to fall for the bright and youthful interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale of woe. However, at the Royal Exchange, director Sarah Frankcom has stripped back the gritty street scenery to offer audiences a sharp adaptation that focuses on the lovers haunting story and powerful vocals.
Within the Exchanges circular set, actors are placed on opposing towers that house the clashing gangs. Overlooking the audience on either side, with a third tower lowered for the lovers to meet, the modern take streamlines the scenes and leans on the whimsical music that encompasses more fanciful choreography. As the company bounce off their conflicting towers into the faces of the audience, the ten-person orchestra hidden outside the theatre walls draws on the cast’s energy, passion and charm that carries the production. The minimal set warmed by its believable cast bring stirring performances that immerse the audience with their personality. Stunning arrangements and moving vocals of the young lovers, played by Gabriela Garcia (Maria) and Any Cocon (Tony) of Somewhere and One Hand, One Heart, enlivening the gentler love songs. But where this production shines is in the reinterpretation of its classic hits that make space for unfamiliar characters.
Typically, the stand out moments of West Side Story are played out by its male characters, but here classic song like America, that debates Puerto Rican living against the American lifestyle is rebelliously performed by one woman who challenges her three female friends. As Rosalia (Bree Smith) brings more ammunition for argument, the show unites its male cast members to build on the dispute, but many lines have been reworked throughout the production to expand on the women’s role within the story.
While its 1940’s “buddy boy” and “daddy-o” slang remains, the stripped back nature of this modern production offers shining moments for its cast to twinkle individually. Alongside the impressive choreography and memorable medley of songs, The Royal Exchange’s West Side Story is a back to basics classic that allows its audience to read between the lines.