When I think of West Side Story, this is the first image that comes into my head; the iconic choreography of Jerome Robbins which blazed a new trail in musical theatre back in the 1950s. It transposes the well known Shakespearean tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to the poverty-stricken backstreets of New York and the tit-for-tat gang warfare between the Jets and the Sharks.
There has been a bit of confusion over this production; Sadler’s Wells is a dance theatre first and foremost, so several friends (including the friend I saw it with) had assumed that this was a ballet version. I can confirm that it is indeed the actual musical, complete with singing, dancing and acting, requiring every ounce of talent from its ‘triple threat’ ensemble cast.
West Side Story is a timeless tale of love across the divide, of bitter rivalry and hatred. But you very much have to accept this as a musical and block out the news stories of spats over gang territory and disrespect which seem, more often than not, to be fought with knives and guns rather than bare knuckles. The dancing is clean, precise and effortless – but in being so perfect, it loses a little of that raw, visceral intimidation that you might find out on the mean streets today. But it is still a breathtaking feat of timing and beauty and what can be achieved by the human body and by several human bodies in exquisite synchronicity.
The roles of starcrossed lovers Tony and Maria are very demanding, so it comes as no surprise that there are two actors/actresses performing on rotation – tonight I had the privilege of seeing Anthony Festa and Elena Sancho-Pereg. For Sancho-Pereg, the sublime operatic heights of Tonight, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are delivered with blissful ease and you watch her grow from a naive young girl, through delirious infatuation to a broken woman howling in the street. Festa makes for a very gentle, warm Tony, perfectly complementing his Maria, without ever upstaging her. This is a well-worn story with an inevitable tragic ending, which still succeeded in breaking my heart.
But the person who stood out most for me was Penelope Armstead-Williams who plays Anita. Fiery, seductive and volatile, she leads her ensemble cast through a stunning rendition of America with boundless energy. But the murder of her beloved Bernardo brings out her bitterness in A Boy Like That and when she is assaulted by the Jets, she is consumed with spite and baying for blood in retribution – a very moving performance.
West Side Story is on at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebury Avenue, London, WC1R 4TN until 22nd September 2013 before going on tour around the UK until June 2014. Tickets available from here: http://westsidestorytheshow.co.uk/