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West Side Story/Liverpool Empire

The turning point in musicals packs plenty of punch 60 years on

Written by . Published on August 27th 2014.

West Side Story/Liverpool Empire

IF you don't want to read any further, just remember this: nearly 60 years after it was first performed, West Side Story still packs a mighty punch. And it's on at the Liverpool Empire for the rest of this week.

This latest touring revival has been on the road, across the world, long enough to be well run-in, but despite some 400-odd performances there's nothing stale or routine about it. It's a premier-league production that sets and maintains a high standard.


The energy is undiminished and, visually, the show is a real treat

Just to recap, it's a reworking of the classic Romeo and Juliet story set against gangland New York of the 1950s, with the Jets and the Sharks replacing the Montagues and Cauplets.

Composer Leonard Bernstein was still something of an enfant terrible of American music despite having a 15-year track record; the choreographer, Jerome Robbins, was a long-time collaborator of Bernstein, while the librettist was the up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, still only in the mid-twenties. Together they took the American musical by the scruff of its neck, and dared to be different.


Gone was the optimism of earlier years, which had kept spirits high through the Depression and the Second World War; gone was the easy lyricism, despite some smash-hit numbers. And gone was the happy ending: Bernstein, Robbins and Sondheim were prepared to embrace tragedy.

Music-theatre or a new American opera? The debate goes on, while audiences have recovered from their initial shock and taken West Side Story to their hearts. Performers must have cursed West Side Story's creators with a vengeance at one time or another. They are required to be dancers and singers in equal measure, but one benefit has always been that this is a young people's show: there can be no veterans coasting along.

One slight downside of this is that the dancer/singers have to be amplified, somewhat, in the huge space that is the Empire Theatre, and at times the sound system seemed to be struggling. But the energy is undiminished and, visually, the show is a real treat.

When it comes to handing out the performing honours, one can only start with the principals, Dominic Hodson and Maria Hall as the doomed lovers Tony and Maria. Then we're looking at Djalenga Scott as Anita, Javier Cid as Bernardo, Jack Wilcox as Riff...the list goes on.

Of the set pieces, the Gee Officer Krupke sequence for the various Jets was arguably the most accomplished, and equally, arguably, the point where Sondheim's voice is the most distinctive. But above all else else, it's an ensemble production that is one of the highlights of the Empire's summer season.   8/10

*Until Saturday August 30.


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