Theatre Review: West Side Story, 5 May, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

6 May

*****

Depraved, deprived and more often than not despised, the two gangs at the centre of West Side Story proved last night that fifty years since their first face-off they can still rumble with the best of them.

While the characters in the musical, first performed in Washington in 1957, should by rights be drawing their pensions by now, director Joe McKneely has infused new life into the tale of love and loss that makes it as vital as it ever was.

Based around the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story relocates the classic tragedy to 1950’s New York, where rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks fight to rule the streets of the Lower East Side.

Although distancing himself from the violence, one-time Jet, Tony (Daniel Koek), is drawn back in when he meets Maria (Sofia Escobar), a newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrant who catches the boy’s eye.

Trying to hide their love from both sides, in particular the leader of the Jets, Riff  (Howard Jones) and Maria’s brother and leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (Dan Burton), the pair’s relationship is threatened during one particular fight (or rumble) when Tony accidently kills Bernardo.

Known for its mature subject matter, intense dance routines and memorable Stephen Sondheim-penned songs – I Feel Pretty and America perhaps the most well known – which have seeped into popular culture, West Side Story would appear to be actor-proof.

Luckily this production goes beyond merely a passable rehash of the source material and offers up its own spin on the material.

Tony and Maria are portrayed with a lightness of touch by Koek and Escobar, the former imbibing the almost whiter-than-white Tony with genuine passion and bringing emotion to the frequently reprised Tonight.

The all-cast rendition of Tonight which comes near the end of Act 1 proved to be the hit of the night, the clever weaving of vocals and lyrics showcasing the skills of both performers, musicians and director that would go on to be so powerful in Act 2.

Ensuring that a new generation of music lovers receive a taste of the passion and excitement that has kept its spirit alive for half a century, this new production of West Side Story also lingers just long enough on the darkness of the tale to make those final moments really mean something.

West Side Story runs at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre until Saturday 16 May.

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