So I went to see West Side Story in the Empire Theatre on its first opening night on Tuesday and it was pretty good I have to say, I just have a few criticisms.. some that can be brushed off easily perhaps but overall it was a very good play.
If you don't know about West Side Story, it is essentially about a modern day Romeo & Juliet back in the 1950s. We see Puerto Rican immigrants (The Sharks) facing a daily bombardment of racist abuse from everyone, including authorities such as the police while American/Polish Jets defend their 'territory' from them. Written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the story rings true as you watch it because let's face it, nothing seems to have changed in the past 60 years as immigrant issues are still relevant and gang warfare seems to still be prominent in Liverpool, Birmingham and many other places. The rivalry seems similar to that of the Shakespearean play Romeo & Juliet as the division is split between the Montagues and the Capulets. And like Romeo & Juliet, in West Side Story Romeo is Tony (played by Dominic Hodson), a Jet, who helplessly falls in love with Latina Maria (played by Katie Hall), a Shark at a dance. Tragedy is inevitable as the two can't help falling in love despite the forbidden line between them.
The show was snappy, the dancing was sharp and perfectly choreographed and the ensemble numbers had you singing and toe-tapping along. Although I did find some people lacked in their singing as some notes were not always on point but I suppose this could be put down to nerves as it was their first night performing in Liverpool. Dominic Hodson who played Tony was very confident in his role both physically and vocally but I felt he was often overpowered by Katie Hall's (Maria) stunning voice.
Here's my first criticsm:
After being accustomed to seeing the film version of West Side Story, I expected Tony and Maria to be a lot darker than they were. Here you can clearly see from the picture above, Tony is pretty much a dirty-blonde haired man which surprised us all and Maria is a mousey haired girl when her Latina elements in the film portray her to be very dark haired and more robust. However, if you ignore these stark differences, they both play their characters very well. I certainly believed in their love and passion and I was touched by the emotion that poured out of Maria when her lover was sadly murdered which most definitely left the whole room teary-eyed.
I also felt that the music from the incredible orchestra at the beginning was very low, perhaps forcing the audience to listen attentively to Tony's earlier solos like Something's Coming and Maria. Even The Jets' opening number seemed rather restrained and passive. However the levels of the sound seemed to rise and grow stronger as the play went on, bringing strength to the reprise of Tonight in the closing minutes of the first half and bringing fantastic comic timing from the men in Gee Officer Krupke. Probably one of my favourites was the swishing of the sequinned skirts in the brilliant song America led by the feisty Anita. Katie Hall definitely shined in the song I Feel Pretty and her moments with Tony in their passionate scenes.
I have to criticise a specific scene heavily though that came in the second half where, for those who are familiar with West Side Story, Anita goes to the Jets' territory to deliver a message to Tony from Maria. She is prevented by Tony's friends and in the film all they do is tease and push her around. True to the film, they did push her about and call her names but.. they then did an actual 3 second rape scene. Now I do not know why the hell they put this unnecessary moment in the play and it was hard to see what was going on as all the lads crowded around Anita's body and the boy who was doing the evil deed but you could see enough to tell what was going on! I am a little disgusted actually they added this scene in when there was no need for it as this was never in the film version of West Side Story. I know children don't often go to the theatre but I did see a fair few young faces in the audience and I just found it very shocking and very uncalled for. I heard a few subdued gasps and mutters around me so I know I'm not the only one who was stunned and questioning why they did this.
But all in all, it was great to see West Side Story on the stage at last and it does leave you finger snapping and dancing out of the theatre. I didn't realise how much I actually wanted to see it outside of the film and on a stage until I saw it. You should definitely go and see it. It's not the show stopping play of the summer but it's definitely worth seeing.
Thankyou for reading.