Friday, 13 September 2013

West Side Story

Sadler's Wells theatre
12 September 2013

The trailer, which gives some idea of the drama's vitality, and wetness. From here.

Authentic, youthful production captures the impact of the astonishing original, but 55 years on, there is room for improvement.

The first thing to note about this revival is that it is taking place at Sadler’s Wells rather than say English National Opera. And that is appropriate, because although composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim contribute significantly to the effect of this work, the words and music are rather less important than Jerome Robbin’s choreography.

Which isn’t to say that the words and music aren’t effective – some of the finest songs in the Broadway canon, and Bernstein produced a masterpiece in his dance music, which captures youthful energy and brashness as no other music does.

But this drama is weaker than its parts, and relies more on the dancing to maintain interest than the music, the lyrics or the text itself. The first part feels overlong, and is required to cover too much ground, right up to two murders, which feels at least as tragic as Tony’s death at the end of the second part.

In the second part, the marvellous comic number Gee, Officer Krupke does not operate in the Shakespearean manner of diffusing tension but rather seems crassly inappropriate, especially as these are not ‘low characters’ irrelevant to the main plot but the Jets, who have been involved in a murder earlier that night. Sophisticated rhymes seem wildly inappropriate.

Some of the most serious dramatic weaknesses could be salvaged in a less reverential production: the dated slang, or the painfully chic Somewhere dream sequence. The final procession, hinting at reconciliation, should be ditched. In Romeo and Juliet hope is spoken, not shown, thus leaving it open to justified doubt after so many deaths.

The visuals are the absolute highlight of this near-masterpiece, and have dated the least, except in the trivial sense that Robbins’ moves have been widely imitated. Overall, the work is part of the US invention of the teenager throughout the 1950s, and strikes me as the greatest description of teenage energy and futility we have.

Someday, somewhere, somebody will update the setting, remove the sogginess and produce a version that properly respects what is great about the piece. Until then, if we must have dusty museum performances that undermine the original freshness, let them be as good as this one.

As usual with music theatre, there is one vital caveat: the unnecessary amplification. It seemed to me that even the energetic dancers could probably project clearly without it, so good were they, and so the amplification does harm by effectively generalising their voices and preventing an unmediated understanding of who on stage in singing.

But the singing was fine, the accents authentic (so vital, I think, in US music theatre) and there was the pep so vital in the key numbers such as America, while A Boy Like That was as urgent and distressing as it ought to be.

It is rare to experience Broadway music theatre in London rather than an anglicised approximation. The difference is important, and this is the real thing.

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