National Youth’s West Side Storm
Review by Andrew M Rosemarine,
NYMT’s “West Side Story” may look New Yorkish, but in fact it is entirely made-in-Britain. For lest you mistake NY for the Big Apple, NYMT in fact stands for our very own National Youth Music Theatre. The ever enterprising drama group recently staged Leonard Bernstein’s 1950s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Manchester, but you would think you were in Manhattan. The cast and orchestra took this city, famous for its football fans’ rivalries, by Sturm und Charm.
With startling realism, West Side Story portrays warring gangs of adolescent Polak Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks at each others’ throats. Playing characters their own age, the cast capitalised on NYMT’s strengths, Director Nikolai Foster and NYMT Producer Jeremy Walker creating a powerful production, as excellent as any I’ve seen, including on Broadway. All the players portrayed the enthusiasms, vulnerabilities and sweetness of youth with vigour, both in their characterisations and choreography. The venue, Victoria Warehouse, affords an exceptionally long stage, which emulates panoramic cinema screens, thus enhancing the production’s authentically 1950s feels – and intensifying the sense of drama and menace that underlies the Bernstein original, a feature critics too often forget about amidst all those appealing tunes. The gangs used this platform to hurtle onto scenes, as if jet-propelled or like a shock of shooting sharks, striking terror into hearts. It was scary.
Riff, leader of The Jets, (Dominic Harrison) pin-up boy for the production’s publicity, set the tone with his “We fought hard for this territory, and we’re not going to give it up.” His friend Tony, (WSS’s Romeo) is played by Jon Tarcy as an all-round-charmer, both on stage and off. Maria (WSS’s Juliet) is acted by Amara Okereke. Only 16, and sweetness incarnate, she sang with the tonal beauty and crystal-clear diction of Julie Andrews. Their entirely-believable love tugged at the heart, and brought forth spectator tears, when her betrothed shot Tony dead.
Maria’s friend Anita (Sienna Kelly), the singer of “I want to be in America”, personified Puerto Rican passion, and an immigrant’s idealism. The Jets gang-raped her with horrible realism. She boogied with gusto beforehand, but the violence laid waste to her optimism. Her lover, Bernardo (Max Jorquera,) seductive dancer and cheeky charmer, metamorphosed into a menacing monster in the presence of the enemy gang. There was something of Robert Mugabe’s voice about him at such moments. Max’s talents as a keen rugby player in real life surfaced in an overpowering aggression. And he paid for it. When he knifed Riff, Tony stabbed Bernardo back. To death. And murder begot murder, and all our woes, with the inevitable loss of Eden.
In real life two of the prominent Jets are best pals A-rab (Sario Watanabe-Solomon) and Baby John (Isaac Gryn.) “How good and pleasant it is when” an A-rab and a Rabbi’s grandson “dwell together in peace!” (as Psalms might have put it). Granddad Hugo Gryn, of BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze fame, would have kvelled [Editor’s note –kvelled is yiddish for swelled with pride.] They amused us with their lampooning of a German psychiatrist and a social worker in lyricist Sondheim’s coruscating satire on juvenile delinquency Officer Krupke.
How was the music? Bernstein himself was very sensitive on the orchestral playing, condemning the version in the famous film adaptation, although it won ten Oscars (a record for a musical) including for the music. But he would have adored young NYMT’s orchestra, aged upwards from cellist William Coulter’s twelve years. He would have also loved how Tom Deering conducted the performance with such energy and sensitive mastery. For they captured the full eclectic genius of the score, depicting romance with enchantment, and warfare with deafening drums. Drew McOnie’s choreography was well synchronized and passionate, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting cast giant shadows off the lovers, highlighting both theatrical magic and the drama’s symbolism.
My only criticism – the coolers for the lighting made so much noise! This was due to a budget decision, which hopefully future sponsors of the NYMT can remedy. NYMT spawns talent (Jude Law is one of its beneficiaries) and deserves all our support.
Because of its eternal message of the destructiveness of ethnic conflict, WSS for me is the most meaningful of all musicals. The multi-ethnicity of this capable cast was inspirational. They were clearly picked for the content of their characters, and not the colour of their skins. The show’s original creators, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents (né Levine) and Robbins (né Rabinowitz) and Martin Luther King (not an author of WSS, as far as we know) were all from peoples subjected to homicidal racism, and would have applauded ardently. NYMT delivered their message with energy and passion. Yes, violence does indeed beget violence. This production really needs now to be seen in the Middle East.
A suggestion to our Matthew Gould and to Daniel Taub (respectively Ambassadors to Tel Aviv and London) – this would make a memorable cultural exchange if restaged in Israel, especially inspirational for the youth of both countries…
photos (all by permission of NYMT) :
Lovers Jon Tarcy (Tony) and Amara Okereke (Maria)
Sienna Kelly (Anita) sings “I want to be in America”
menacing Max Jorquera (Bernardo)