Review: West Side Story

To this day, I have no idea how I’ve managed to not see West Side Story all the way through. I own the 1961 film adaptation but I’ve just never sat down to watch it and when the last UK Tour came around in 2013 I just wasn’t looking out for it. So, when Orbit Theatre released that their production would be hosted by Cardiff’s New Theatre I was immediately intrigued to see what I’d been missing out on.

This show is a 60-year-old classic so I already knew nearly all of the main songs. This is thanks to seeing clips from the film to many musical theatre compilation albums from stars such as Collabro and Michael Ball and Alfie Boe who each give their rendition of ‘Somewhere’. I also already knew that this show is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York and moving the house-conflict to a standoff between two gangs; one being American (the Jets) and the other being Puerto Rican (the Sharks). This production will always be special in the world of Broadway as it introduced the world to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics as his Broadway debut in 1957.

Orbit Theatre is a Cardiff based amateur theatrical company and this cast features quite a young cast among the leading principles as some are still studying for their A-Levels. One of these is the leading lady Millie Davis, who plays Maria. This show marks her New Theatre debut and I was genuinely astounded. I could not get over how well she pulled off Maria’s famous soprano voice as she didn’t falter even once during this performance. It’s really something when an actor makes you wish that they had more stage time just to hear their voice and Davis did this as soon as she came on stage.

In most productions of Romeo and Juliet, it is Romeo who has more experience with the conflict and Juliet has been kept very much away from it. However, West Side Story flips this as Tony has been away from the direct conflict for some time and becomes almost giddy with love when he meets Maria. In contrast, Maria is far more headstrong. She balances her loyalties by making it clear to Tony when he can and can’t see her, but she also stands up for her love to Anita. This makes Maria a very different interpretation of Juliet. She is still very young but she toes the line between her naivety and her experience in how the world, or rather the conflict between the Sharks and Jets, works.

It was when this difference from the source material became apparent that Davis really stood out for me. Not only does she have an amazing voice but her acting and character creation were flawless. She really brought out the headstrong and devoted nature of Maria’s character and I never had the feeling that she was just being stupid as the character of Juliet is often guilty of. Davis really gave one of the most believable interpretations of Maria and nothing about her character felt arbitrary. She really made the ending as her portrayal of grief bordering on hysteria really was something to watch, especially for such a young actress. The scene in which she is told the result of the rumble was really something else as she made sure her confusion and grief came through despite the mic issues.

Basically, if you go and see this production for no other reason, go and see it simply to see Millie Davis as Maria. Also, if you’ve had issues with Juliet’s characterization in past adaptations of Romeo and Juliet I would recommend seeing West Side Story to see a refreshing difference in the characters. I’m so happy to say this, but, if you can get past the falling in love in one day and forgiveness of murder, Maria is actually smart within her situation. Her sending of Anita and her defense of her love during a very well done rendition of ‘A Boy Like That’ was just really satisfying to watch.

Personally, I really liked Aled Davies’ portrayal of Tony. I got the feeling that, in the vocal demands of Tony, West Side Story hopes to depict Tony’s confused status between boy and man. However, the script really doesn’t follow through with this as much as some may expect. Therefore, Aled Davies’ ability to hit the higher notes and his softer portrayal of Tony really fitted into the script and gave a nice contrast to Millie Davies’ Maria. It also made the flip between Romeo and Juliet quite clear as he seemed to be the far more giddy lover.

West Side Story is famous for the dancing and its transition from Broadway and street dancing into the choreographed fighting can be seen as an influence in today’s shows which achieve the same blend (see Disney’s Newsies on Broadway as an example). In this production the dancing was choreographed well in some places, however, there are many moments where some of the ensemble dancers were out of sync with the other members of the group. This led to some distorted timing and some of the lines were also a bit messy.

I also feel that this production could have benefited from the less is more policy. This production’s rendition of ‘Somewhere’, which was sung very well, could have made it a stronger moment if only Tony and Maria were dancing. I have nothing against the other two couples but, considering that this is their main love song which they sing to each other at the show’s conclusion, they seemed to get a little lost.

This was unfortunately present throughout the ‘Ballet Sequence’. I just simply felt that there was too much of a reliance upon bringing on the whole company to represent Tony and Maria’s confusion at the situation. I felt that this mainly harmed the ‘Nightmare’ sequence. This would have had more impact if it was either only the two ghosts who came on or just the two gangs as, if this was the case, the audience could have focused more upon Maria’s trauma at watching the murderous events of the rumble. In parts, even the ‘Rumble’ itself was a little confused. I understand that the point of the rumble is to watch the one-on-one fight devolve into a fight between all members of the gang but the deaths caused by this simply got lost which is a shame given the character shift this should cause for Tony.

Unfortunately, this production was also plagued by mic issues throughout, but they were mainly present during the opening. Hopefully, this will be resolved throughout the week.

Overall, I’m glad that I saw this production for the experience of trying something new. There are certainly some amazing young talents in this production. I would recommend anyone to see Millie Davies’ Maria as she is simply an amazing actress, especially considering that she is still studying for her A-levels. The relationship between her Maria and Aled Davies’ Tony is also certainly intriguing to watch, especially if you know the source material of Romeo and Juliet. If you’re looking to try out this classic for the first time and you want to support some up and coming Welsh talent then this is the production for you.

You can buy your tickets on Cardiff’s New Theatre’s website here. It is running Until Saturday the 11th of November.

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