Review: SMS's West Side Story – So good I'd watch it thrice

I loved LUU Stage Musicals Society’s West Side Story so much I went twice, and took my parents, and I fan-girled Anita in Terrace. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock (or aren’t musical theatre nerds), West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet and set in 1950’s New York. Two rival gangs, the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, battle for territory and are just generally angsty teenage hooligans. Maria, the sister of the head Shark, and Tony, best friend of the head Jet, meet and fall in love – cue Shakespearean misery and violence for all involved.

The underlying themes of racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are so relevant right now it’s creepy. As the events Facebook page asks: how far have we come in 50 years? You could change the Puerto Ricans to refugees, bring the costumes up to date et voila, you have yourself the UK in 2015. The cast also manage to capture the youth of these characters, which not all productions succeed in and without which their struggle for respect and belonging is not nearly as emotive. The childish jokes and naivety of the Jets especially proves that these aren’t adult fighters but lost boys, trapped in a cycle of violence rather than inherently violent themselves.

But as in all good renditions of West Side Story, the plot is really just a vessel for the spectacle of the show, and here SMS does not disappoint. The choreography is phenomenal – it’s both classic and dynamic, and fair play to the entire cast, even those whose dancing is less polished leave everything they have on the stage. The energy levels never drop, and when combined with the brilliantly executed music (best orchestra at an Am-dram production that I’ve seen and with such an enthusiastic conductress) and wonderful costumes you have a cacophony of sound, colour and movement that will not allow you to look away. Special shout-outs have to go to: Anita, who could out sass Beyonce; particularly Action but all the boys in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ (I never thought I’d hear sounds like that from our Activities Officer); and the dance Mistress lady whose hilarious caricature was the highlight of the first half.

The only criticisms to level at it was that some of the acting was a little awkward, and the presence of the ‘Somewhere’ singer onstage jarred with me a bit, although the rest of the scene worked brilliantly in conveying the impossibility of the situation. Not all the singers are quite up to the challenge of the music, which is perhaps unfair to even mention as Sondheim and Bernstein’s work is essentially the vocal equivalent of trying to do an obstacle course over boiling lava.

But most importantly, none of these things even begin to detract from my immense enjoyment of the production. SMS have outdone themselves and created an absolute storm of a show; if it were on again tomorrow I’d go for a third time, and I can’t wait to see what they do with Grease.

Rachel King

Image: Rob Palin

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