Musical Review








.50th Anniversary World Tour

Michael Brenner for BB Group GMBH and
Howard Panter for the Ambassador Theatre Group Limited present

The Original Broadway Classic

West Side Story


Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by
Jerome Robbins

Originally Produced on Broadway by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince
by Arrangement with Roger L. Stevens

Director – Joey McKneely

Musical Supervisor and Principal Conductor – Donald Chan

Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely

Sadler’s Wells

22 July – 31 August, 2008





A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


West Side Story, the groundbreaking, urban musical inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which places its racially divided characters in an urban New York City gangland, opened on Broadway in 1957 to mixed reviews. Despite its hot and cold reception, the production revolutionised musical theatre. There were many reasons why. It’s frank treatment of glaring yet often ignored social ills in American society like hypocrisy, racism and increasingly rampant inner-city gang violence, its innovative choreography by Jerome Robbins, incorporating gang warfare into its athletic mix of ballet and contemporary dance, its singularly striking musical score by Leonard Bernstein, especially constructed to further the drama of the musical’s storyline and, its appropriately street smart, often deeply emotive lyrics by then newcomer Stephen Sondheim, as well as realistic, atmospheric sets constructed from urban materials like concrete and steel, to name a few. The fact that West Side Story doesn’t offer its audiences a happy ending also made it especially unique in glossed over 1950’s USA, when happily ever afters would have definitely been preferred. Even Rogers and Hammerstein’s smash hit musical Oklahoma! which had been a Broadway smash the decade before had featured a couple whom, despite everything, managed to overcome all of the odds against them to make it to the altar. Conversely, West Side Story features brutality, despair, longing and ultimately, loss, in its attempt to inspire afterthoughts in its audiences about real, as opposed to fairy-tale scenarios.

This production, derived from the original Broadway one, has several strengths, most notably it’s terrifically athletic, energetic dancing, as choreographed by Jerome Robbins, well directed here by Joey McKnelly and its sublimely diverse score, composed by Leonard Bernstein. The definitive choreography as performed here, elevates tension, delights the eye and sets the pulse racing. When accompanied by Bernstein’s seminal, multi-influenced, citified score, the two make for a deliriously explosive cocktail! The way the music and dance interlock must surely be a consummation devotedly to be wished by many musical duos. Having also seen, and savoured the acclaimed production of another inspired collaboration between Bernstein and Robbins, On the Town at London Coliseum last year, I have to say that anything involving either or both of these two consummate artists tops my ‘must see’ list.

At the matinee performance of West Side Story that we attended at Sadler’s Wells, the production’s other main strengths included the talented performers playing Maria and Tony, Elisa Cordova and Scott Sussman. The marvellous chemistry running between them during their love scenes, almost made you feel like kicking off your shoes and running through the nearest clump of grass barefoot, with your cherished long term partner (or intended) by your side, it was that infectious! Their wonderfully emotive singing voices greatly enhanced the electrical charge of their longing duet on ‘Tonight,’ as well in as their respective solo numbers. Cordova was also especially luminous on the chorus assisted, ‘I Feel Pretty,’ in which she rapturously, but humorously described the intoxicating joys of young love.
However, the treatment of ‘There’s a Place for Us’, a song which generally, offers one of the most emotive duets between Maria and Tony, subsequently providing pivotal moments in the production, sank under the weight of too much fantasising, in what seemed like a rather ill-advised attempt to inject a bit of cinematic context of Titanic proportions into the scene. The female singer who sang the song from offstage performed it well, and it was thrilling to hear her do so.  But the foreshadowing dream sequence which strove to depict the ideal world the song describes, which had a number of cast members joining hands to illustrate that notion, concluded what felt like a very over-laden scene, with a scenario which seemed far too obvious. However, I really can’t say whether that scene was treated in that manner in the original 1957 Broadway, acclaimed 1958 European or 1960 reprised Broadway productions. Another rather odd, directorial choice occurred in regard to the generally, wryly insightful number, ‘America,’ a lively repartee designed to proclaim the virtues and, vices of Puerto Ricans, a.k.a. ‘non-whites’ trying to live in America, from the female and male perspectives. In this case, instead of the call and response between the male and female characters, in which the women are largely in favour of what they perceive as the freedoms of America, while the males conversely point out the vices: continuing racism, lower wages for non whites, being American, but not enjoying all of the benefits that should entail, was lost, in favour of a more innocent version of the song pitting the females singing the virtues of their new homeland, against the lone woman among them who still longs for San Juan, despite its sweltering heat, rampant sexism and overwhelming poverty. ‘America’ was still very enjoyable to listen to given the excellent voice and dancing of Oneika Phillips as Anita and her fellow performers. However, the give and take between male and female characters, so integral to getting the song’s full meaning across was absent, in favour of a scenario which smacked of ‘girl power,’ with more of a contemporary attitude, complete with premature brashness and confidence, (for recent arrivals to a new, very fast paced city) than I felt was apt in the circumstances. However, Ms. Phillips and company’s spirited performances in this sequence garnered an instantaneous, hearty round of applause at its conclusion, which, was well deserved.

However, any momentary diversions could not detract from the fact that this is a very fine production, with an outstanding troupe of very talented performers, offering plenty of highlights to savour afterwards. Take for example, the great, wryly enacted versions of ‘The Jet’s Song’ and ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ both of which were rousing, punchy crowd pleasers, and my personal favourite, the very moving rendition of ‘Tonight’ which Elisa Cordova as Maria and Scott Sussman as Tony performed so beautifully, with all the youthful incredulity necessary for us to be able to sustain our belief that they have fallen in love at first sight. Having seen Cordova play Maria, it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role. She added great warmth and humanity to her Maria. Sussman was also completely credible as Tony, a nice guy with a volatile undercurrent running through him, which ultimately gets the better of him.

The fantastic revolving set, designed by Paul Gallis, with its metal fire-escapes and storefronts which are utilised to their fullest potential, really sets the tone for each scene, with its changing black and white photographic backdrops of Manhattan skyscrapers and neighbourhood streets. As it was Bernstein and company’s intention to more or less keep each scene of the musical ‘self-contained’, the many smooth and swift changes of backdrop and foreground apparatus are entirely appropriate to the shifting action. Costumes by Renate Schmiter separate good girls from bad, and white gang The Jets from their Puerto Rican adversaries, The Sharks, with appropriately demure white dresses for Maria, and hot pinks, purples and reds for Anita, Shark gang-leader Bernardo’s partner and her pals and satin Jets jackets and colourful clothing for Bernardo, befitting a leader, his lieutenants and gang members. Lighting by Peter Halbsgut is also very effectively employed, with dreamy softness and shadows intermingling during tender moments and fiery tones utilised for scenes of a more jarring, violent nature. The Sound Design of Rick Clarke incorporates everyday urban street noises such as sirens and traffic, so crucial to realism into this heady mix.

Since this is the 50th Anniversary production of West Side Story, we are now in a position to be able to have a little more of the action which was merely alluded to in some of the scenes of early stage productions and the 1960 film of the musical, to be more clearly inferred. However, this production’s blood-letting scenes, involving stabbings and other violence are oddly bloodless, which seems to be a gesture either designed to render them more suitable for family viewing (incredibly, there were several pre-school aged/toddler girls scattered throughout the audience with their mums and their grand-mums, some of whom, understandably, looked very perplexed/dismayed at the interval) or make it a more pleasant viewing experience all round. Both approaches conjoin to soften the potentially powerful, sadly topical message of the musical’s storyline somewhat. Some of the physical scenes in which men are meant to be punching or slapping each other also tended to stretch credulity somewhat, as it was too obvious from their execution that that wasn’t really happening, so some fight directing may be in order to help make these scenes become still more believable and potent.

One unexpected, instructive thing which came out of seeing West Side Story for me, was that, with the passage of time, its impetus has changed from being ‘cool’ when I was younger myself to being cruel, as in cruel world, and the senseless cruelties which can be born out of ignorance and fear of the ‘other.’ As some scenes throughout had been so emotive as to bring tears to the eyes, as the show reached its inevitably tragic conclusion, I found myself with a lump in my throat. Maybe that’s because in this era of repetitive, senseless street violence, especially among the young, the overriding message of West Side Story is still painfully apt, in that the notion of any young life being cut short is a very bitter pill to swallow indeed.



Ticket Office:     0844 412 4300 or
Performance Times:       Tue – Sat at 7.30pm
Sat & Wed Mat at 2.30pm, Sun at 5pm
Ticket Pricing:    £10 - £60
(* restricted view)
STALLS: £40, £50, £60
FIRST CIRCLE: £35*, £40, £50, £60
SECOND CIRCLE: £15, £25, £40

STALLS: £30, £40, £50
FIRST CIRCLE: £25*, £30, £40, £50
SECOND CIRCLE: £10, £15, £30

There is a transaction charge of £2.20 for telephone and postal bookings
(£1.50 for online and concessionary bookings. No charge in person)



WOKING New Victoria Theatre                                         Tues 2 Sep - Sat 13 Sep 2008
MILTON KEYNES Theatre                                   Tues 16 Sep - Sat 27 Sep 2008
SALFORD The Lowry Theatre                                             Tues 30 Sep - Sat 11 Oct 2008
WIMBLEDON New Wimbledon Theatre                          Tues 21 Oct - Sat 1 Nov 2008
GLASGOW   Theatre Royal                                                 Tues 11 Sep - Sat 29 Nov 2008
CARDIFF Millenium Centre                                                Tues 6 Jan - Sat 17 Jan 2009
SOUTHAMPTON The Mayflower Theatre                        Tues 27 Jan - Sat 7 Feb 2009


Further dates in 2009 to be announced soon




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