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West Side Story at Wales Millennium Centre     

West Side Story at Wales Millennium Centre THE musicals stage is currently obsessed with revivals of old shows from Sound of Music to Mary Poppins, Grease to Oliver. And then we have the 50th anniversary production of West Side Story making its way to Wales Millennium Centre.

But director and choreographer Joey McKneely wants the audiences to enjoy a vibrant, fresh show not a museum piece even though one of the main selling points of this revival is its historical authenticity.

McKneely also accepts that for most audience members it is thanks to the famous film version rather than the stage show that they best know the tale of the star crossed lovers Maria and Tony and the gang warfare of the Jets and the Sharks.

“I would not want people to be too focused on the film,” McKneely explained chatting after the London run before a new UK cast took the show on the road. “Yes, they will come with perceptions but as soon as that curtain goes up and it is not quite what they expect – but is what they expected to feel.

“They probably know exactly what happens in the story but with this love show when Tony gets shot the audience is genuinely surprised so in the moment they forget the film and are there in the live experience which is why they have come in the first place.”

How can West Side Story fail with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the book by Arthur Laurents, original choreography by Jerome Robbins - oh, and a play by Shakespeare? Just take songs like Tonight, Maria, Somewhere, America and I Feel Pretty, and a glorious night at the musical is a sure bet.

The stage show was a turning point in American theatre dealing with hard contemporary issues being tackled face-on in a musical context with extended dance scenes of choreographic brilliance while the 1961 movie won 10 Academy Awards, broke all box office records, and some argue has never been surpassed.

The movie had a remarkable cast although Natalie Wood not only mimed her songs but was neither at her dramatic best (apparently although she and her Tony Richard Beymer looked gorgeous they didn’t get on). The same cannot be said for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno who each gave performances that have become legendary.

Robbins came to the piece when his then lover Montgomery Clift was a successful Shakespearian actor. Robbins had the notion of reworking Romeo and Juliet but with Jews against Catholics but was persuaded by his creative collaborators the racism that existed between Italian and Puerto Ricans in New York was a more potent story to tell.

Whatever the inspiration it is the dance that sets it apart with his unique fusion of balletic and athletic movement that created a new vocabulary. Then it was a dangerous, threatening new idiom that is more the precursor of the modern movement from contemporary dance companies than other musicals such as the likes of, say, Arlene Phillips or Matthew Bourne.

McKneely argues that the look of this revival sets it in a timeless era. Similarly he has gone for a fresh, young feel, with violence, racism and hate as realistic as possible. “I want this show to be as useful as possible, to capture that sex and violence are driving these youths. The youths on the street have a very different energy.

“In the 1950s there was more censorship, everything was more polite but now there are no more barriers; violence is part of our everyday lives. This is a piece of reality that happens today and is timeless.”

The set design is straightforward and again instantly reminiscent of not only the film but also the iconic imagery that the musical had held true to with those escapes and balconies. These, to a large extent, work well as they are able to swing in and out of view.

Whatever the success of McKneely’s attempts to make the show timeless and youthful, relevant and striking what wasn’t in question is the quality of the dance from the Americans performing on the London stage. If the UK touring cast come up to the mark then audiences can sit back and enjoy a fabulous visual feast.

McKneely first got to know the choreographer back in 1988 as a young dancer in the show Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Even them McKneely remembers his impression being a man totally devoted to his work and to the integrity of the choreography. The dancer changed, not the dance.

It was much later McKneely made his directorial debut with a production of West Side Story at La Scala in Milan and then came the opportunity to create this the 50th anniversary production. For this latest production his stated ambition was to enable audiences to re-discover West Side Story as if for the first time and bring it to that new generation.

He had worked as Jerome Robbins’ assistant and there is no disputing he has brought back that original razor sharp choreography to live audiences magnificently with much flair for the ensemble numbers which now several generations have grown up as part of the dance backdrop to their lives.
“Working with Jerome Robbins was like going to college again. When I worked with him it was fascinating to learn all the choreography not just from West Side Story but also from some of his other great shows such as King and I, Fiddler and some lost works. I was intrigued by how specific every single step is to him as a choreographer.

“I would watch him every day and be so inspired and come to understand he made the decisions he made and chose the dancers he chose. The choreography always came first for him.”

Now he has the role of taking that care and understanding to new artists.
“Another responsibility I feel I have is to teach as many new performers this show. For they need to know the power a musical can have. This way they give more. I am always asking for more!”

Yet again he stressed it is not just recreating an iconic work from another century. “But I do want to say again that the biggest thing is that the audience isn’t coming to see a museum piece and not just the original versions but a new version for a new generation.”

Donald Gordon Theatre at Wales Millennium Centre. January 9-17. 08700 40 2000
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Mike Smith
Monday, January 5, 2009back



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