Words by Paul Gallear / Pics courtesy of the New Alexandra Theatre
It wasn’t new when Shakespeare wrote his version around 1591, and it wasn’t new when Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim debuted West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. It probably wasn’t even new when Masuccio Salernitano published Mariotto and Gianozza in 1476. But what is new tonight is the cast.
The New Alexandra Theatre (itself over 100 years old) runs an annual programme called Stage Experience, where fresh faced 9-24 year olds get to perform a full musical to a paying audience, taking advantage of all of the theatre’s facilities including their 19 piece orchestra.
Now in its 14th year, the Stage Experience for 2017 is West Side Story, with our young hopefuls taking on the acting and singing roles as well as the technical roles such as lighting and set design. And they only have two weeks to run lines, rehearse dances, and learn what it takes to tread the boards at a professional theatre company. No pressure then.
The auditorium tonight is largely full and the stage is crowded; these days I am more used to seeing a comparatively sparse set where a lot of the context is left to the audience’s imagination. But this time the crew has striven to capture the iconography of 1950’s down town New York: Coca-Cola advertising, metal fire escapes, graffiti and barbed wire-topped chain-link fences.
Indeed, the barbed wire is separating the audience and the stage from the moment we enter, sending us a clear message about the social status of the characters and their delineation from society. The set is manipulated cleverly throughout, creating a range of scenes and scenarios, though I am sometimes distracted by the noisy and visually obvious way in which the set is moved around. Perhaps, with more time, this could have been better planned.
The set (despite being visually busy and sometimes noisy) is used creatively and energetically by the cast – climbing walls and fences, ducking down side streets and alleys. The dancing, especially during the fight scenes, has an almost balletic quality, and the actors interact with each other well even when the stage is crowded.
At times it is joyous and exuberant, such as during the famous song ‘America’ or during the scene at the dance. But the stage feels too crowded at times, as though everyone who applied to Stage Experience (103, so we are told at the end) has been given at least a walk-on part at some point. During lively numbers, such as ‘Tonight’, the large cast does help to build the atmosphere but it isn’t always needed.
The professional orchestra, with whom the cast have the pleasure of working, are just that: professional. They do justice to the energetic score and to provide an ample framework around which the singing and the dancing can be hung.
The singing is well-performed throughout, though at times the annunciation is a little lost on my ears and some of the lines are hard to hear. It is also worth mentioning that there are occasional glitches from the radio mics worn by the cast – sometimes the audio is not picked up and, on one occasion, we hear audio from an off-stage cast member.
The audience is, I suspect, largely made up of the families and friends of the large cast. But I don’t think the enthusiasm they show for the performance is unjustified, especially given the mere two weeks of preparation that has gone into this production. The New Alexandra Theatre’s Stage Experience is meant to be a chance for young performers to hone their skills and demonstrate that they are faces to be looked out for in the future, and I think some of the actors tonight have certainly managed that.
Two in particular stood out for me: Leah Vassell with her strong and sassy portrayal of Anita, who was especially moving during ‘A Boy Like That’, and Elliot Gooch as the erstwhile Jets gang member, Tony. Gooch was the standout performer for me from this production; singing and acting with aplomb, especially when he had the stage to himself during numbers such as ‘Maria’.
I did feel that more could have been done to contemporise this production and move it away from being a straight facsimile of the original stage show or film. It would have been interesting to find out how the young cast would have coped with a West Side Story adapted in a different way and to have tested their abilities.
Whilst there is nothing particularly new about such a well versed narrative, or stage production, there is again something new tonight – the actors. Many of whom may well be gracing the stage again, and perhaps the screen, very soon.
West Side Story runs at the New Alexandra Theatre until 26th August. For direct information, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.
For more from the New Alexandra Theatre, including full event listings and online sales, visit www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-alexandra-theatre-birmingham