West Side Story, Norwich

West Side Story changed the face of musical theatre. Its rich drama, musical genius and balletic choreography became the benchmark by which the modern musical is judged.

By JOHN LAWSON

West Side Story changed the face of musical theatre. Its rich drama, musical genius and balletic choreography became the benchmark by which the modern musical is judged.

And, more than 40 years later, it was wonderful to see this classic of our times had lost none of its ability to move, to empower – and to entertain.

Leonard Bernstein's music still presents unbelievable challenges to what must, for the sake of realism, be a young cast; Arthur Laurents' book and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics demand rich character development and powerful performances, and Jerome Robbins' note-by-note attention to detail offers a visual feast.


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To make radical attempts to update or develop the show would be almost as unthinkable as playing with the text of Romeo and Juliet on which it is based.

But I do feel Robbins' claim he had produced perfection and that as such no future production should stray by more than a step from his original direction does leave any revival on a hiding to nothing. The set for this production even returns probably the closest yet to Oliver Smith's original 1955 Broadway set.

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We cried for Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris on the big screen – and the movie hailed one of the greatest in screen history landed two Oscars.

So could we cry for Tony, Maria, Anita and Bernardo at the Theatre Royal?

Early on I doubted it with the very stagey street ballet at its height – but as the drama blackened, the leading characters captured my heart.

Celia Graham had the voice of an angel as Maria, well matched by Norman Bowman's Tony.

Their duets had an effortless grace and emotion as the songs swept to their climax.

Emma Clifford was a powerful Anita in every respect – vocally, dramatically and leading the Latino girls in their dances.

Less convincing was Steven-John Tokaya, who was just too clean cut as Bernardo – not quite the powerful leader you would expect the Sharks to follow – while Julian Essex-Spurrier as Riff was a little over-theatrical for my taste.

But how wonderful to hear a large-scale band in the pit. Fourteen-strong, they provided richly-textured orchestration as part of an overall sound that was magnificently designed by Steve Brierley. Every word was audible and the balance perfection – this was sound which was enhanced rather than simply amplified.

West Side Story plays at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday September 22 and, as you might expect, tickets are already at a premium. You're not going to find any surprises but, as a first-time visitor or a dedicated fan, you will be royally entertained.

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