Theatre in Wales

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West Side Story: West Wales Triumph

Aberystwyth Summer Musical

West Side Story , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , July 29, 2007
Aberystwyth Summer Musical by West Side Story Arts Centre Director Alan Hewson reveals in the programme that “West Side Story” has been on his mind for many years but each year it still appeared too big, too daunting. Finally the success of the summer production of 2006 tipped him and director Michael Bogdanov over the edge. I suspect it is close to the career leap of a lifetime.

Not only it is an iconic score from an era when musicals offered a whole batch of memorable tunes, not just one or two, but there is the film. Any musical that is worthy of a revival produced a film in its day. Happily, most of them are resolutely of their day, faded, with the occasional bright sequence that still shines. But “West Side Story”, from the finger-snapping opening onward, casts a long, long shadow and has a half-dozen scenes still brilliant forty-six years on. On Amazon’s DVD rankings it is thousands of points ahead of any rival, say, “Evita” or “Guys and Dolls”.

Two summers back the Arts Centre put on Lionel Bart’s “Oliver.” The best music “Who will buy?”, a lyrical four-voice counterpoint, wiped the floor with the anaemic film version and its ersatz London set. Cue to 2007; cast and technical, musicians and dancers have made this revival of “West Side Story”, a musical so canonical, so American, utterly and triumphantly their own.

There are two good reasons why. One is in the direction and one is in the book. It starts at a pace. Those fingers snap fast. Anthony Williams’ choreography has diluted much of the faux-ballet movement. James Crowley, rake-thin, explodes on stage with the Jets. As leader Riff you can smell the feral authority he has over his beefier gang members. The programme notes claim this is his professional debut- they have to be kidding.

Arthur Laurents’ book may have been sharper, with more social commentary, than Ernest Lehman’s 1961 film script, or it may have been subtly updated. Whatever, the toughening up solves one directorial headache, how to represent gangdom in 2007. In fifty years we have seen gang life imaginatively represented in all its venality and viciousness, from “Colors” to this year’s “This is England.” On first appearance the Jets come over as closer to Matt Damon than “City of God”; but if the mildness of dress is ‘50s accurate it is undercut by the bitter racial bile they trade with their Puerto Rican rivals.

“Clear out, spicks“ snarls Lieutenant Shrank as he enters the drugstore. “Polack bastard”, “greaseball”, “lying spic” are the mutual gang insults. In contrast friends Riff and Tony exchange a great greeting: “Womb to Tomb” and its rejoinder “Sperm to Worm.”. Now that didn’t make it through the Hollywood filter.

Some of the songs sound as if they may have had a refurb. Maria is “bright” now rather than “pretty, witty and gay”. When Action, a masterclass in coiled-up aggression by Gareth Richards, spits out his lyrics “My father was a bastard/ my mother’s an S-O-B/ my grandpa’s always plastered” I checked; these really were Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 lyrics.

Lyricist only here, this was the twenty-seven year old Stephen Sondheim’s first major venture. The love songs are melodically great but lyrically he has since expressed himself dissatisfied with them. The ensemble songs, however, give hints of his brilliant work to come with their multiple rhyme schemes. In “America”, a dance number by the four Shark girls that blazes, Puerto Rico is an island where “the hurricanes are always blowing/ the population always growing”, a pause, “and the money always owing.”

No score is more driven by percussion than Leonard Bernstein’s with its Cuban overtones. In the first number “Jet Song” the bass of Huw Thomas assumes an early authority. The eleven- strong orchestra are onstage but in shadow behind a link fence and cannot be seen in detail. Between them Laurence Hill’s and Tim Evans’ drum and percussion perform brilliantly right to the last deep kettle drum beats that accompany the carrying off of Tony’s corpse.

Sian Jenkins’ costume design reaches its peak in the dance hall number. Jets are dressed in Peppy-ish pastels and the Hispanics enter wearing blacks and reds; the ensuing mingle of dance and confrontation makes for a stunning colour mix.
There is one stand-out piece in Grant Barden’s lighting. Richard Munday’s voice is a natural for Bernstein’s love songs and he sings one solo at the back of the stage high up on Sean Crowley’s gantry set. The brick wall behind is turned a luscious turquoise-y dark blue.

The majority of the twenty-seven strong cast must be under thirty, well, thirty-five. Laura Clements as Maria is a Latin to her bone. It is hard to believe that this is the same person who was a New York hack on the same stage nine weeks back. The mock-bridal scene is a rare point where the book shows its age but the sheer quality of her and Richard Munday’s acting transmutes it into something quite touching.

The character of Anita is a lot meatier and Sam Taylor-Martin gives it every gram of sensuality it asks for. With her breadth of vocal range she achieves the near-impossible. As she unrolls her black stocking, singing “Anita’s going to her kicks tonight/ we’ll have our private little mix tonight/…as long as he’s hot” she wipes out every memory of Rita Moreno, the part made indelibly hers.

Reviewers are not traditionally supposed to roll over and simply burble superlatives. So, Laura Clements’ veil slipped off in the mock-bridal scene. She adroitly put it back singing all the while and second night it will be pinned on for sure. But that is what we go to live theatre for; it’s the risk and Aberystwyth has gone for the big one this year.

There are many mysteries in our universe. Quite why this season the Ceredigion audience gets to see this theatrical firecracker while down in the Bay Cardiff folk get to see “Acorn Antiques” that is a whole new mystery.

“West Side Story” continues until 25 August

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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