When it’s been a reasonable period of time since you last saw West Side Story, it’s easy to remember the hopeless romanticism of the Romeo and Juliet inspired tale, while forgetting the much darker themes which run alongside the love story. It’s also disconcerting to realise that in the sixty years since this musical made its Broadway debut, how little societies have budged from the notion of protecting their turf, and their honour.
These thoughts ricocheted around my head in the final moments of the Bishopsgate Institute’s production of Bernstein and Sondheim’sclassicmusical, a production which brings with it a number of surprises.
Aside from being staged in traverse in the Bishopsgate Institute’s Grand Hall, the cast are comprised completely of amateurs, although they are supported by a creative team of professionals to help add a certain polish to the production. The amateur cast are accompanied by a full 28 piece orchestra, who succeed in making Bernstein and Sondheim’s incredibly intricate score even more of a delight to hear.
Set in New York’s upper West Side, the familiar plot sees rival gangs The Jets and The Sharks battle it out on the streets, and it’s when Tony, the leader of The Jets falls in love with the leader of The Sharks sister, Maria that tensions really flair. It’s not just gang allegiance, there’s strong racial tension at work with the Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’ being accused of stealing American jobs and being told repeatedly to go home. Told through song and dance, brut ignorance is exposed in all its frustrating absurdity.
Based on Jerome Robbins’ conception, it is ambitious choreography, especially the fight scenes, for an amateur cast to take on, individually you can see that it’s a stretch for some of them, but when you view their performance as a whole they do remarkably well. The staging set up in The Great Hall is ideal for the large scale ensemble numbers that fill the space with twirls and flourishes of colour.
Those vivid colours come from some beautiful costumes by Stewart Charlesworth, which help you forget that there isn’t actually a set, the cabaret seating and a pair of ladders all that is required to stage this ambitious production. Chain link fences surround the audience, with the cast filling up the space behind at various junctures, at one point the seating literally shakes in the midst of real tension.
This amateur cast give a professional performance, with some incredible vocals on display, particularly from Emily McDouall in the role of Maria, alongside the equally talented James Gower-Smith as Tony. For the rest of the cast, the accents may need a little work but on the whole they do a remarkable job.
Director Toby Hine has made sure that each member of the cast has a chance to demonstrate their abilities, the long stretch of stage often filled to capacity with an energetic and animated ensemble. This West Side Story is certainly worth seeing for the accomplishment of the cast, but it’s that glorious orchestra, led by Ben Ferguson who make you fall in love with this musical all over again.