Theatre Review: WEST SIDE STORY – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Gabriela Garcia (Maria) & Andy Coxon (Tony) in WEST SIDE STORY.

Gabriela Garcia and Andy Coxon in WEST SIDE STORY. Photo: Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

Punchy, fresh and more relevant than ever before, Sarah Frankcom’s WEST SIDE STORY brings a whole new energy to the bona fide Broadway classic

5 out of 5 stars

Over the past few years, the Royal Exchange has been making a speciality out of reshaping classic musicals. From LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and SWEET CHARITY to GUYS AND DOLLS and THE PRODUCERS, the theatre has gained somewhat of a reputation for its fresh takes on iconic classics. No surprise then that their latest production – a reimagining of the Broadway classic WEST SIDE STORY – already looks to be a sell-out run.

Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play ROMEO AND JULIET, WEST SIDE STORY tells the tale of the Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs who make New York’s mean streets even meaner. When Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang’s leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, tensions between their respective friends begin to flare, ultimately leading towards a tragedy that will tear them both apart.

The cast as The Jets and The Sharks in WEST SIDE STORY

The cast as The Jets and The Sharks in WEST SIDE STORY. Photo: Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

Stripping back the big set pieces, Director Sarah Frankcom maintains the essence of Arthur Laurents’ classic story while making enough changes to feel punchy, fresh and relevant. Inspired by the shapes and patterns of New York, Anna Fleische’s vertical geometric set creates an abstract world, the actors hanging, climbing and balancing on the metal structures as they negotiate the different levels and layers of a city. Aletta Collins’ new choreography equally bursts with energy, bringing elements of Latin, northern soul and street dance into the piece to make it look significantly different to the original while still sharing its spirit.

This new production of WEST SIDE STORY is also the first time the estate has allowed Leonard Bernstein’s arrangements to be reworked. Played with gusto by 11 musicians sat in a custom-built sound booth just outside the theatre, Jason Carr’s orchestration feels modern, fresh and exciting, bringing a punchiness to lesser-known tracks like COOL and GEE OFFICER KRUPKE! while quietly blowing you away with its soft and sustained sections in MARIA, TONIGHT and SOMEWHERE.

Natalie Chua, Jocasta Almgill, Frances Dee & Bree Smith in WEST SIDE STORY

Natalie Chua, Jocasta Almgill, Frances Dee & Bree Smith in WEST SIDE STORY. Photo: The Other Richard

Andy Coxon makes for a likeable and charismatic Tony, his beautiful rendition of MARIA standing out as the highlight of the evening, while Gabriela García brings an innocent naivety to the role of Maria, her operatic vocals adding a new dimension to Bernstein’s much-loved score. Together, the pair are simply transfixing, their chemistry on stage immersing the audience fully into their story. In fact, all of the cast are excellent here, from Jocasta Almgill’s feisty Anita to Michael Duke’s proud Riff.

But what makes Frankcom’s production truly stand out is how timely it feels. The era of the setting is deliberately unspecific here but it with its clear parallels to inner-city racial divisions and the recent increase in street knife crime, this 62-year-old story feels more pertinent than ever before.

Make sure you get a ticket for this one!

WEST SIDE STORY runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 25 May 2019