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Mr Monkey sees West Side Story at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Venue : Royal Exchange Theatre
Start date: 6th April 2019
End date : 25th May 2019
Visit date : 11th April 2019
Gabriela Garcia as Maria and Andy Coxon as Tony (production photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard)
Maria (Gabriela Garcia) and Tony (Andy Coxon) find love on a tenement fire escape (production photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard)
Mr Monkey looking at the poster for West Side Story
Mr Monkey looking at the poster for West Side Story.

Mr Monkey took the 192 into Manchester, and scurried along to the Royal Exchange Theatre for the press night of Bernstein and Sondheim's musical, West Side Story.

West Side Story was first staged on Broadway in September 1957, though Jerome Robbins had first had the idea in 1949. Originally set on the East Side, the setting was moved to the other side of Manhattan in response to changes in American urban crime following increased immigration from Peurto Rica. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the musical was a smash hit, being described by in the New York Daily News as "a bold new kind of musical theatre".

The musical has been frequently revived, always using Jerome Robbin's choreography. As this production is in the round, and has a smaller cast than more conventional productions, it is the first production to have completely new choreography, by Aletta Collins.

In the Bernstein/Sondheim version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a section of Manhattan's West Side is being fought over in a long running dispute between two youth gangs, the white Manhattan-born Jets and the Sharks, immigrants from Puerto Rica. A social worker forces the two gangs to go to a dance together, in the mistaken belief that they really all want to be friends. While most of the evening is barely restrained hostility, Tony, best friend of Riff, the leader of the Jets, meets Maria, sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo. Maria and Tony fall in love; the gangs arrange a rumble under the elevated highway. Everything goes wrong at the rumble, with both Riff and Bernardo stabbed to death and Tony on the run, pursued by Chino, Bernardo's best friend. It's broadly faithful to Shakespeare, only the two gangs aren't equal in the eyes of the authorities, and only one of the lovers dies.

Before taking his seat, Mr Monkey wandered around the theatre and found that the orchestra were being kept in a temporary room built onto the outside of the theatre pod, and he watched them setting up for a while.

The set is a plain black surface, with a crosswalk and the curbs of a street marked out by white lines. The buildings of New York are represented by three skeleton buildings consisting of white beams and bars and transparent panels to support the actors (and prevent them falling off). It makes for quite a contrast to the more solid scenery of the Exchange's production of Guys and Dolls back in 2017.

The costumes are all appropriate for the late fifties, with plenty of long wide skirts and turned up jeans; numbers such as America are a riot of swirling skirts and colour.

The cast are excellent. Andy Coxon (Tony) and Gabriela Garcia (Maria) are fine as the star-crossed lovers, though Mr Monkey doesn't think that anyone, however talented, could make Maria ignoring the fact that Tony has just killed her brother when planning to run away with him totally convincing. Jack Lord is a particularly unpleasant Lt. Schrank, which seems totally appropriate; he's much less malignant in his other role as Glad Hand, the social worker. The rest of the cast form an excellent ensemble, Mr Monkey sometimes finding it difficult to tell the different gang members apart. An interesting exception is Emily Langham's Anybodys, the tomboy who desperately wants to be a Jet (rather than a Jet's girlfriend). Mr Monkey is convinced she starts Somewhere, and actually made him like the song.

The music is spot-on throughout, and Mr Monkey could hear all the words.

The Sharks (production photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard)
The Sharks, all dressed up to dance with the Jets (production photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard)
The Jets (production photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard)
The Jets, ruling their little patch of West Side turf (production photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard)

Mr Monkey really enjoyed West Side Story. From the very first notes of the overture he had to be physically restrained from snapping his fingers, and he was really impressed by the music, the singing, and especially the dancing with fills the stage with joy, passion and grief. He recommends this production to anyone who wants a night of perfectly staged gang warfare.

West Side Story runs until 25th May 2019, and is going to return to the Royal Exchange in 2020.

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