So in a previous post I mentioned how me and a cocktail-loving friend were going to see one of the most well-known and loved musicals of all time. Well, tonight was that night. Quick burrito to feed the butterflies that had been fluttering in my stomach all day and off we went to see West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells. How excited was I? Think of a kid on Xmas morning, if Santa was actually a dancing, clicking Puerto Rican with an axe to grind (God I wish Santa was actually like that!!)
Of course the problem with this scenario is with great excitement comes great expectation (not quite a Spider-Man quote but I was definitely channeling Stan Lee a bit there). I’ve only seen this production once before and that was an amateur version during my university days. From that particular show I came out thinking superb female casting, awful male casting. Now I appreciate how difficult this musical must be to cast – it requires expert dancing in the chorus with incredibly strong vocal leads and a carefully crafted mixture of both in the supporting characters. Of course in all cases acting is also a must-have. Sounds like the kind of recipe you would give to an expert chef! The other problem here is that this production was a stone’s throw from the West End in an incredibly well-known dance theatre. Put this together and you have some shoes to fill, especially to do Bernstein, Sondheim and Jerome Robbins proud. Ok, here we go!
Drawing from a fellow bloggers opinion (‘Ow Am Yau?) I think sometimes you can expect so much from something that you feel disappointed despite everyone around you loving the production. I was definitely switched onto hyper-critical mode all performance. But when I heard the orchestra start their interlude to bring on the first altercation with the Jets and Sharks I got more shivers of anticipation at what was to come.
Now, always good to start with a positive; you expect this production in this theatre to have spectacular dancing… So thank god it did! Now I do mean spectacular here folks. A beautiful combination of ballet poise with in-sync rhythmic timing and drawing from completely inspired choreography, from start to finish this part of the show was flawless. A particular highlight for me was watching the male Jets do their sequence after ‘Be Cool’, featuring the trademark click and gallop combo as the Jets storm downstage with attitude and menace. There’s a reason that the still image of this is basically the poster for this particular run of the show. Of course, how can I mention dancing without talking about the Latina influences, particularly in ‘America’, which just like the women was brimming with sass, sensuality and sensational execution – move over Spice Girls because that was girl power right there. You almost feel sorry for the Sharks guys and the Jets girls, their counterparts definitely get the best sequences in this show!
Another really interesting sequence was the ‘wishful thinking’ dance sequence that surrounded ‘Somewhere’. Now I found this the most novel part of the production; it combined a beautiful song sung by the leads with the epitome of grace that encapsulated the ballet dancers, all dressed in white to create a dream-like imagery on the piece. All this worked wonderfully with a cleverly scored orchestration that really allowed the soaring strings to complement the action on stage. These 5 minutes really showed how all aspects of the theatre can collaborate to create something truly memorable. I will not forget that sequence for a while, I tell you now.
Look at all that praise above! Go me. Unfortunately there is a devil on my shoulder that has waited long enough and deserves a say. First though, I will briefly praise the set (some really nice scaffolding motifs to represent over-crowded, built-up New York) and the orchestra (wonderful playing of some really very tough composition). Right, time to let rip on the actors, more specifically the main ones. Sorry in advance. So, the supporting cast was played well overall. Riff was cast to a dancer with a good (not great) voice and slightly dodgy accent, ironic given that the actor (Mark Mackillop) is from across the pond. Bernardo was given to another average actor, but those parts are fairly simple to cast frankly.
Maria and Tony are different. They require people with some acting skill, but mainly with spectacular voices. Maria is almost operatic in quality, soaring high notes and some of the most iconic female songs in musical theatre (‘I Feel Pretty’ has phrases that rise in pitch up to the rafters, and both ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Tonight’ require strong diaphragms to hold those notes and really let the, fill theatre). So naturally you need a budding opera singer, and this was what we got in Elena Sancho-Pereg. Lovely higher notes with some excellent diaphragm support that fell apart in the lower register, overcompensated by a vibrato to mask her unsure to when to place those notes.
Now, Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony. In Liam Tobin’s defence, he was a good actor and seemed to complement Maria well. Possibly, given that it was almost the end of the run, his voice was getting tired (even I hate that excuse, but you have to try and be fair). But I can give no more complement than that. The part of Tony also requires a male with strength in the upper register, but in my opinion what it does NOT need is an opera-like voice. Liam seemed to attempt (and fail) to achieve an opera quality to his singing with “over-vibrated” vibrato and a really nasal quality to his voice. He pronounced some of the words very strangely and with that nasal tone it was in effect an ode to Janice from Friends. My learned friend told me in the interval that this was to compensate for his inability to sing the high notes with any kind of clear pitch or for any length of time. She was not wrong. ‘Something’s Coming’ should be quick, exciting and with anticipation; frankly it was what Mary Berry (Great British Bake Off) would call a soggy bottom i.e. it fell FLAT. ‘Maria’ should be filled with wonder and glee and having seen the girl that takes your breath away; it too fell flat (mainly in the singing). Am I being mean to this man? Yes. But his singing was basically the stain on an otherwise fairly white t-shirt that would not wash out.. Honestly, it put a really dampener on the production – every time I got into it again, my heart sank knowing that he was about to sing in just a few short beats time.
To lift the mood after that character assassination was the saving grace, one performer who hit the magic trio (sing, dance, act) square on the head. Penelope Armstead-Williams was an absolute triumph as Anita. Full of guts, sass, incredible dancing acumen and the key sensitive side, she stole the show for me. SPOILER ALERT, the end of the second half with the rape scene was filled with emotion and pathos that she exuded effortlessly. I will be keeping an eye out for anything she performs in on my travels and will be booking a ticket as soon as I see her name. Just wow.
I know this production is HARD to do well – tricky choreography, demanding vocals and some unconventional melodies that jump and hit notes you don’t expect. So all in all, the production was ok. I just can’t say better than that, and the final thing that convinced me of this verdict was that I should have cried at the end when Tony died. I admittedly am a weeper (several parts of Billy Elliot, the end of Blood Brothers and ALL of Les Mis springs to mind), so me not crying at this says it all. Shame.
Overall, a superb dance production with a superb Anita.
Word of the day – humdinger. Describes this review, don’t you think?