West Side Glory

Elizabeth Mistry sees Mexican actress Gabriela Garcia sing her heart out at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

Pictures © Richard Davenport / The Other Richard

That there is a genuinely Latin American flavour to the new production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 musical West Side Story – currently showing at Manchester’s innovative Royal Exchange Theatre – is a testament to director Sarah Frankcom’s obvious commitment to making this Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of doomed love relevant to a new generation of theatre goers. 

That there is a genuinely Latin American flavour to the new production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 musical West Side Story – currently showing at Manchester’s innovative Royal Exchange Theatre – is a testament to director Sarah Frankcom’s obvious commitment to making this Romeo and Juliet-inspired revengers’ tragedy relevant to modern audiences. 

While the ‘boy meets and falls in love with girl from boy’s enemy tribe’  theme is a storytelling staple, Frankcom brings the story bang up to date – leaving the audience in no doubt that intolerance, gang violence and inevitably, knife crime, are worryingly close to home as they were on the streets of New York’s Upper West Side less than a decade after Americans of all colours fought together during World War II.

The Sharks

The tension between two gangs (the Jets, made up mostly of the sons of white(r) first generation immigrants and the Sharks, predominantly composed of young Puerto Ricans) is observed helplessly by Tom Hodgkins’s benign seen-it-all-before drugstore proprietor and – more worryingly for younger audience members – by Jack Lord’s racist cop, Lieutenant Schrank.

The Jets

The mutual disdain is clear from the slow burning opening number which sets the scene with a brooding portent of the inevitable, against Anna Fleischle’s minimalist set design.  Never have simple white metal girders served so well as the urban jungle; the fire escapes and the mean streets, a hideaway for young lovers and a bridal boutique.

Both gangs are uniformly dressed – by Polly Sullivan – in 1950s inspired costumes with everyone kitted out in converse style trainers which surely makes the exuberant dancing much easier on the company. The show features new choreography for the first time since the original work opened and while the big numbers are enjoyable, it is the surprisingly poignant encounter between Jet leader Riff (Michael Duke) and Bernardo, the chief Shark played by Fernando Mariano, that stays in the mind.

Each actor combines the right amount of swagger and self belief with a semblance of affection for their families – both blood and chosen. It reminds us – fleetingly – why gang culture can seem so attractive.  As one character says early on, “Without a gang you’re an orphan.”

The supremely talented UK-based  Gabriela Garcia (born in Leon, Guanajuato) takes the leading role of Maria, a young girl newly arrived from Puerto Rico who is being lined up by her brother Bernardo as a potential bride for his young protege.

Garcia, who trained in England at the Arts Educational Schools, first rose to prominence following her standout performance in London a couple of years ago as Nina in In The Heights, an early musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda (a Nuyorican who also acknowledges some Mexican ancestry). 

A decade ago, Miranda worked on a bilingual revival of West Side Story on Broadway and later went on to write ‘Hamilton.’

Much has been made of the decision  to use new the choreography, specially commissioned from Aletta Collins for the Royal Exchange’s production. Her clever circular movements and formations make full use of the unique space constructed (and reconstructed 20 years ago by the appropriately named architectural practice LevittBernstein) inside the original Cotton Exchange which was once responsible for trading and exporting cotton from the mills of North West England to countries such as Mexico – where Frida Kahlo used material from Manchester in some of her famous Tehuana-style dresses.

The seven-sided theatre with just three tiers of seating makes for an incredibly intimate theatrical experience. 

When Andy Coxon’s Tony, who has just met Maria at a dance organised to try and help overcome the visercal hatred between two gangs who are more alike in (in)dignity than they would ever realise or acknowledge, sings of his new passion for the Puerto Rican girl, some might find it cheesy. Coxon makes it ring true.

Both Coxon and Garcia are well matched with Coxon’s admirable vocal range perfectly suited to Sondheim’s music and an excellent foil to Garcia’s operatic style of singing which is more than strong enough to stand up to the technically brilliant (but occasionally over amplified) music coming from the Pit – for this production located in an acoustic cabin just outside the auditorium – under Mark Aspinall’s baton.

Gabriela García (Maria) and Andy Coxon (Tony)

There are several standout moments; Garcia’s rendition of ‘I Feel Pretty’ and perhaps the musical’s best known number ‘America’ which unlike the film version is not played as a face off between the Puerto Rican girls and boys but as a episode between the girls alone led by Jocasta Almgill’s feisty Anita (excellent as a woman torn between her loyalty to Bernardo and sympathy for Maria’s plight).

But on the night I saw the show, the moment my heart skipped a beat was when Emily Langham’s Anybodys – the tomgirl who desperately wants to be one of the Jet boys despite their generally callous treatment of her – sang ‘Somewhere’. 

The decision to give her the opportunity to open the number was inspired; for the duration of the song, in a theatre which 20 years previously had been virtually destroyed by an IRA bomb representing desperation, hate and vengeance – in a city determined to show the world that it will continue to rise above the attack on concert goers less than two years ago – the audience collectively held their breath. 

I can’t have been the only one who heard it as a plea for a place of greater safety for all those who need a refuge from the ills and intolerances of the world. It was my defining theatre moment of the year so far. 

When the song finished there was a hush in the auditorium and a tear in the eye of this reviewer. In the silence that briefly followed, not a single clap was heard – which was – though the cast might not have realised it at the time, the greatest applause of all.

West Side Story runs at the Royal Exchange Manchester until 25 May.

While almost sold out, a few tickets are available and the production will also run from 18 April-23 May 2020. 

For more information call the box office on 0161 833 9833 

www.royalexchange.co.uk

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