West Side Story Review

Princess Alexandra Auditorium, Yarm – Until 8 April 2017.

Darlington Operatic Society presents West Side Story at the stunning Princess Alexandra Auditorium.

Unquestionably one of musical theater’s most beloved, iconic classics, West Side Story—the stirring Broadway musical that features a book by theater titan Arthur Laurents, music by the incomparable Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by living legend Stephen Sondheim—remains a still-resonant masterpiece of song, dance and story that explores themes still quite relevant even in modern times. Loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s tragic drama about star-crossed lovers, “Romeo and Juliet,” the musical is cleverly reset in the tough mean streets of early 20th Century New York City, where two warring teenage street gangs—the Jets, a Caucasian gang, and their rivals, the Sharks, comprised of Puerto Rican immigrants—clash for dominion over their working-class neighborhood.

As the doomed gang members Jason Slater (Bernardo) and Ben Connor (Riff) do nice work, although Connor is more easily able to organically incorporate Riff’s street cred. Karen Stone shines as Anita. Her wonderful voice is matched by her strong emotional, and sometimes comedic, performance.  And while Rhiannon Walker is a ideal Maria with her beauty, sensitivity, touching playfulness and the yearning soar of her soprano, Neil Harland’s Tony is vocally sublime.

As the authority-abusing (and creepily racist) Lt. Schrank, Julian Cound gives his role a convincingly towering, eerie presence that easily justifies why both the Jets and the Sharks hates him. Beside him is Rob Van Vlijmen who does a great job playing Schrank’s lackey, the plump, bumbling Officer Krupke. On the less threatening side is Norman Rudd, who plays super-square, out-of-touch school official Glad Hand, who tries in vain to curb the conflict at the school dance by forcing a co-mingling of the two factions. Poor guy just gets insulted for this efforts. And finally, there’s Doc, owner of the local drug store where Tony works and the one true ray of reason and compassion in the narrative. Played with heart and endearing empathy and a wonderful yorkshire accent by Dougie Clayton, Doc watches helplessly as the teens implode all around him.

This monumental piece of stage craft—originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins—is buoyed by its gorgeous, enchanting score, believably vivid characters, important socio-political motifs, and timeless, inescapable songs like “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” “America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” (and many more) that all contribute to the show’s enduring brilliance.

There were a few sound issues last night and maybe a few first night nerves, the band however wonderful could do to be turned down to help the vocals stand out.   But, problems aside,  this still came across as a reasonable production by an amateur group.