Sunday, September 24

West Side Story – Hyde Festival Theatre

It’s always a brave company that takes on a production of West Side Story. The musical that re-imagined Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the 20th Century, has been subject to two Oscar-winning film adaptations and a myriad of critically acclaimed revivals on Broadway and the West End.

Then there’s Leonard Bernstein’s earworm-inducing score, the iconic choreography learned and copied by theatre brats of every stage school known to man, and the need to find triple-threat actors to successfully land the show’s biggest moments. It’s a musical that sets certain expectations before there’s so much as a click of fingers.

Those holding tickets to Hyde Musical Society’s sold-out production can breathe a big sigh of relief. The society, under director Daniel Oliver-Grant, have once again done themselves proud with a smartly set, tightly directed account with strong principal actors, wonderful choreography, and bags of energy.

The cast make full use of a simple yet multi-level set, nimbly scurrying round its ladders and platforms to create a compelling prologue as we meet our tribes – the Jets, a New York gang fighting over territory with rival Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Threats and racial slurs are thrown as they circle round each other, snarling and lunging but rarely landing more than a few black eyes and bloody noses.

Things come to a head when Tony, desperate to escape the Jets and find a new path in life, spots Maria, sister of Shark’s gang leader Bernardo, at a dance and the pair find themselves unable to keep apart. Tensions soon boil over with deadly consequences and the warring sides must face the reality of their conflict.

Matthew McGoldrick as Tony, and Kat Rawling as Maria are both excellent, with good chemistry and lovely vocals. Their characterisations help them stand apart from the gang members, with Rawling nicely capturing Maria’s teenage impatience in the early scenes and McGoldrick successfully contrasting Tony’s more considered nature against his best friend Riff’s hot-headed instincts.

Occasionally their vocals lack power in the upper ranges, and Tony is almost played too nice to ever believably land a vicious blow, but their duets, particularly in the quieter songs are beautiful. And Rawling’s performance ensures the finale retains its huge, emotional gut-punch.

Ben Vaughan as Riff oozes cocky attitude and, whilst singing occasionally goes off-kilter, he comes into his own leading the number ‘Cool’ which is one of tonight’s stand-out songs. Similarly, Steven Cheeseman as Action is an engaging and gives a fantastic rendition of Gee, Officer Krupke with his fellow Jets.

On the Shark’s side, we have a feisty performance from Alison Baines as Anita, bringing lots of sass to her signature number America (although it’s a shame that none of the male ensemble feature in it) and similar fire from Kit Phillips as Bernardo.

His fight sequences with Riff bring oodles of tension and all of the Sharks do well with the accents (as well as thankfully eschewing Fake Bake tanning cream in favour of bold and brassy performances to sell the Latinx attitude).

The ensemble do a great job with these clashes as well as the big dance numbers, effectively executing Simon Fitzpatrick’s vibrant choreography, which is peppered with the show’s most famous moves whilst retaining its own identity. There are moments, such as the Dance at the Gym, where they are a little crowded (big, flashy moves end up boxed in and a touch untidy) but, overall, it hits the marks it aims for. Special mention must be made of the soloist (uncredited but appears to be Lauryn Pickles) who gives a lovely rendition of Somewhere.

The society are also reliably supported by their ever-excellent band, led by Musical Director Dave Chapman, and the signature move of piping through the live orchestrations from their offstage location means there is never that tiresome fight to hear performer over musician.

The lighting plot (also created by the show’s director) adds lots of atmosphere in creating the mean back-alleys of New York and the costumes look authentically 50’s bringing the perfect colour palette to the stage.

Ultimately, the society have yet again brought their A-game in delivering a triumph out of one of the stage’s most famous tragedies.

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Reviewer: Lou Steggals

Reviewed: 29th March 2023

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★