first night

West Side Story

Daniel Gosselin sees what The Sharks and The Jets are getting up to at Collingwood

 

‘West Side Story’ is the classic 1957 musical based around Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was made famous for its incredible music by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, and Jerome Robbins’ unique choreography. It is an ambitious production by any standard with its complex orchestration and rhythms, and is one rarely seen in student theatre. Whilst not outstanding, I felt that Collingwood did an admirable job at pulling off this very difficult piece of musical theatre, we saw moments of brilliance interspersed throughout the production, but it lacked in consistency.

 

As the show opened we first hear the orchestra, led by Adam Laughton and Ryan Bunce, and it set the tone for the evening. They should be commended for their musicality, and at times they made a very impressive sound; however, they often struggled with some of the more intricate Bernstein rhythms and lacked the intricacy fully required. It seemed to become a running theme throughout the evening that songs would start and end with a bit of a stutter but be far better as the number went on. They were by far at their best when playing as an ensemble and some solo moments remained a bit off-putting from the action.

 

The performances struggled from the same issue, the leads Tony (Mark Statham) and Maria (Anna Galbraith) were the most consistent offering both strong vocals and performances, particularly Anna, who did manage to pry some emotion from even this reviewers cold heart in the final scenes. Nevertheless, there were a couple of slip-ups from the duo and at times I felt they were a little lacking in chemistry, but I’m sure once first night nerves are gone they will both deliver strong performances. The gang leaders Bernardo (Jake Lennon) and Riff (Mark Goodwin) offer stable performances throughout and make convincing leaders, Goodwin’s vocal performance in the difficult Jet Song was another personal highlight.

 

The issue then arises in the consistency of the ensemble roles in the show, many offer strong support at times but are inconsistent in their performances. Accents are a particular sticking point, almost all of the cast fall foul of losing it at times, but many seemed to forget about it altogether when singing, which was a bit jarring, and while I understand the difficulties of singing in accents it is a shame that we didn’t even get a hint of them. Many ensemble roles were also guilty of over-acting at times, verging on melodrama, whereas it should have felt darker with more sinister overtones reflecting the anger of the warring gangs. At times though I was reminded of the characters of those we were watching, particularly the trio of girls alongside Maria in I Feel Pretty (Clara Shepard, Gabriella Matkin, and Sarah Lewis) which was yet another highlight.

 

One thing that was, however, sadly lacking was the stylised movement and choreography an audience has come to expect of West Side Story. I enjoyed the moments when we were able to see Gabrielle Fradin’s choreography, however, the solo dance of Burcu Ozcan, whilst impressive, was made less poignant as it acted as a standalone piece of movement rather than an extension of the traditional stylised fight scenes.

 

Anna Chambers direction of the cast was well executed, with good use of the small stage available. However fight choreography was often lacking credibility, where we often saw punches half a metre from the targets face, and often lacking in strength. This lack of strength and conviction was seen throughout the ensemble, particularly the female cast playing male roles. Blocking at times felt a little forced and unnatural, however, these moments were few and far between. Sadly, the blocking of some solo songs felt a bit like watching a tennis match, and I would never underestimate the power of standing still and letting Bernstein’s music do the work.

 

The technical aspects of the production were generally dealt with well by Jonny Browning and his team. At times it was a struggle to hear dialogue over the large orchestra and some microphone issues occurred, but this did not detract from the overall show. The set was simple but well designed and the changes were slick, the lighting assisted well in creating atmosphere and location.

 

All in all, Collingwood made a valiant attempt at this very difficult show and whilst it showcased moments of brilliance, it’s lack of dance and consistency meant it didn’t quite live up to my expectations of such a well known and respected piece of musical theatre.

3 March 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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