22 November 2013

West Side Story at the New Wimbledon Theatre

I'm still unconvinced by musicals as a genre but I keep giving them a try and I am enjoying most of them.

Without any of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics around West Side Story seemed like a good alternative.

I was a little cautious and went for a cheap seat in the front row of the upper circle at the New Wimbledon Theatre. The safety rail was bit of a pain but that was why the ticket was so cheap and I was happy to accept that compromise.

I knew beforehand that West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet with the feuding families replaced by the gangs Sharks and Jets, but that was about it, so I settled down (a little nervously given the precarious position of my seat) to follow the story and enjoy the music.

The first surprise was the number of songs that I recognised. I knew that America came from here but not the others like Maria and Something's Coming. The later was a big surprise as I had always associated it with prog rock band Todd Rundgren's Utopia having heard a live version of this on Radio 1 in 1975. I recorded the show and played it many times.

The songs that I liked the most were the ones that I knew and hence those that were the more popular. The others were fine if not special.

The singing was much the same though Maria (Juliet) was a notable exception and her voice rang out loudly, clearly and beautifully.

The dancing was neatly choreographed and made pretty patterns on the stage.

The stage did some clever things in a simple way and managed to be a street full of tenement buildings (with the metal pull-down ladders that action movies love so much), a dance hall, a bridal shop and a plot of derelict land under a highway.

The story surprised me. I expected Tony and Maria to die, though I have seen a ballet version of Romeo and Juliet where they both lived, so when something else happened it was unexpected. Probably not to most in the audience who seemed to know the show quite well and cheered each song enthusiastically.

I was also surprised, though only because I had not really thought about it, that the Sharks/Jets conflict was not just territorial, it was racial. These days, simplifying horribly, gang wars are shown as being between different Afro-Americans groups but this was between recently arrived whites (Tony's family were Polish) and even more recently arrived Puerto Ricans (referred to as PRs and Spiks).

Personally, I think that racist terms like that should be removed from shows where it is not central to the plot. The Montagues and Capulets are both from Verona and did not need racist arguments to hate each other.

Overall West Side Story did a lot of nice things rather nicely. It never dropped in to the mundane but then it never quite sparkled either and it left my ambivalent attitude towards musicals much as it was before.

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