We are thrilled with our NODA (National Operatic & Dramatic Association) review of our last production, WEST SIDE STORY. Thank you to David Slater for this brilliant write-up.
‘West Side Story’ is a seminal work in the musical theatre repertoire and one not to be tackled lightly by any amateur society. Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant musical score is one of the finest of all musical creations for the theatrical stage and is a punishing orchestral masterpiece which tests the mettle of even the most experienced musicians. As such, it is perhaps worth mentioning at the outset of this show report the slick and opulent brilliance of the sound summoned up from the orchestra pit throughout the evening: this was a wonderful achievement in itself and created a solid framework for the rest of the production. MD Julia Taylor and her orchestra are to be congratulated for a flawless reading of this titanic score in what was a majestic musical display.
‘West Side Story’s place as a theatrical game changer is assured: it straddles the worlds of the musical and of opera; ties together music, acting, singing, choreography and dance into one big bundle of all-round ‘performance’; Bernstein’s music and Sondheim’s lyrics fuse together magically; the themes the show explores are universal, important and continue to be relevant… ‘West Side Story’ may take the main thrust of its plot and thematic bedrock from Shakespeare (and it's never a bad idea to borrow from the best) but in its magisterial treatment of them, transcends it's source material and becomes a work of genius in its own right. It was therefore heartening to see - and hear - ReAct Academy make such a wonderful job of presenting this challenging and rewarding show before a large and appreciative audience.
The show opened to a wonderful overture/prologue which sounded quite fantastic and introduced us to the cast and a pleasantly simple and functional set, which created just the right arena for the drama which was to unfold before us and also enabled quick and easy scene changes to speed the narrative along. Dave ‘Wally’ Walton on fine form as always here and although I wasn't sure about the barbed wire topping to the fencing (a minor gripe!) here was another lesson in the art of simple, effective set design of a professional standard. The projection of video images at the rear of the stage also helped to add depth to the setting and again, made for slick changes of scene and mood.
Introducing us to the Jets, Rees Parry was a very strong Riff indeed; the snake-hipped, cocky nonchalance he brought to his characterisation worked well and coupled with a strong voice and graceful, easy movement around the stage, he was a very strong presence throughout the evening. All of the Jets and the Sharks were nattily attired in period garb (the Shark girls’ rather nifty ‘50s frocks were particularly eye catching) and the opening moments of the show were choreographed to perfection: throughout the show, the expressive movement was pin-sharp and made for a perfect fit with the show's forward-rolling momentum. All of the cast are to be applauded for the way they embraced the ‘feel’ of the movement in the show, whether it was a dance routine, a ballet, a fight scene or a combination of all three!
Jack Huckin rose to the challenge of bringing Tony to life admirably. His performance successfully summoned up his burgeoning desire to leave the world of the gang behind and his fevered, inarticulate reaching out for something else (encapsulated perfectly with ‘Something’s Coming’) was very well expressed. The Jets as a whole were very well represented across the board: Fletcher Smith was a very lively Action, Cameron Henderson impressed as Diesel and Aaron George was a particularly thoughtful Baby John; I enjoyed his characterisation very much. Blake Morris was certainly a physically expressive ARab (I’m going with idea of his rather irritating mannerisms being part of the character rather than an unfortunate series of theatrical tics!) and Amy Krueger was a suitably well disguised Snowboy. Louise Cullen was a feisty and believable Anybody's in one of the evening’s strongest performances and the rest of the Jet girls gave solid support too.
As I seem to have slipped into an exercise in strolling through the cast list, let us turn now to the Sharks. Lewis Neild-Ali was excellent as Bernardo, bringing a pained dignity to the role which was just right. Thomas Gales-Ellis was a lithe and sinewy Chino and if I didn't quite believe that here was a bottled tornado ready to explode, his very emotional characterisation more than made up for it in what was another very thoughtful performance. Brogan Riley was quite superb as Anita: here was a real firecracker of a character. A good deal of thought had obviously gone into creating a character of strength and depth and her every appearance was a treat. Olivia Humpage as Maria brought an interesting combination of tenderness and determination to this pivotal role and sang beautifully too; her immensely likeable performance shone from the stage and the relationship between Maria and Tony was a very real and believable entity as a result of the two performers working together so well.
There were so many impressive scenes to take away from this production that it seems invidious to stint on attempting to mention them all, so I'll do my best… The pivotal gym scene with its fantastically well choreographed ‘Mambo’ was a real treat, the whole ensemble swirling and swooping around the stage to great effect. ‘Maria’ was was well performed and the segue into ‘Tonight’ with its narrative interlude was also well done, the balcony scene accomplishing the bringing together of the lovers from opposing camps swiftly, naturally and with no loss of narrative drive and precision. ‘America’ wrung every last drop of wit and musical bravado from this superb song and was also full of movement and colour, despite losing the odd lyric here or there (dodgy diction, or a wonky sound balance?) I wasn't so sure ‘Cool’ worked quite as effectively as a number though; the preceding dialogue worked well enough and although strong vocals were in evidence, I wasn't quite as convinced with the choreography here: I did think the point of the song was rather thrown away as a result but his was a very minor blip on the radar in the first act, probably made evident only by the high bar set by the rest of the evening.
‘One Hand, One Heart’ is possibly my favourite song in the show - although as there isn't a weak link in the score, this is a show where it's very difficult to pick favourites! - and Jack and Olivia really delivered. When the ensemble joined to deliver the rousing quintet version of ‘Tonight’, the stage picture which resulted was well thought out even if again, the occasional lyric was missed or lost beneath the underscoring. ‘The Rumble’ which leads to the climax of the first act was superbly well executed all round with a real sense of looming tragedy and brought the first half to an ominous conclusion in fine style.
The talented young cast had the great fortune to receive first class assistance from four of the local amateur scene’s finest performers in the smaller - but no less important - adult roles. Simon Westwell was a commanding presence as Lieutenant Shrank, wringing every last drop of spite and malice out of this complex character: here was a masterclass in the art of stage characterisation. Geoff Baron was his equal as the more sympathetic Doc and between them, the two performers gave us a well-rounded insight into the adult world which the youthful rival gangs were rebelling against in their angry, inarticulate way. These two superb performances gave the production a solid centre and it is hard to think of a better possible pairing in these roles. Connal O’Reilly was a gloweringly effective presence as bully boy Krupke and Kev Riley sparkled - both literally and figuratively! - as a seedily ineffective Glad Hands: another great little cameo from Kev.
Act Two presents before us the messy aftermath of the tragic dramatic crisis which spurs on the rest of the narrative as it tumbles headlong to its conclusion. The sweetly ironic ‘I Feel Pretty’ was well performed by the girls and the Ballet/ Nightmare which followed was very well conceived with excellent choreography and lighting to accentuate the mood. Ana Bradbury delivered ‘Somewhere’ (a marvellous song - I told you it was tricky to pick just one favourite from the score!) with an initial faltering hesitancy which suggested a few nerves but which blossomed into a strong and confident performance as she worked through the song: well done Ana. ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is Bernstein’s take on the vaudevillian Broadway show tune par excellence which, combined with Sondheim’s scabrous and intelligent lyrics, adds up to one of the great musical moments in the show and achieves a great deal on a number of different levels. Again, I missed a lyric or two here and there, possibly due to an unfortunate combination of unequal sound balance, imprecise diction and the fast pace of the musical treatment but despite this, Action and the Jets really threw themselves into the routine in fine style.
The show hurtled towards its tragic conclusion in an appropriately dark and glowering fashion, with Brogan Riley storming through a powerhouse performance of ‘A Boy Like That’, with Olivia’s counterpoint of ‘I Have a Love’ delivered with passion and drama too. I was particularly impressed with the way that Cassandra Webster did not shy away from addressing the hard hitting scenes in the piece which were dealt directly and forcefully, the show’s finale also being dealt with in an appropriately mature and dignified manner to round off the evening smoothly and poignantly.
It was a real pleasure to attend an amateur performance of this important and challenging classic work of musical theatre which was so thoroughgoing in its achievements. The musical score was given a polished and impressive airing and all the performers on stage had clearly worked so very hard to bring the best of themselves to the piece. As your humble NODA rep wends his often weary way around the North West, evenings such as this linger longest in the memory: something actually worth doing done so very well being a surprisingly uncommon occurrence on the amateur stage of late. This was an artistic triumph of the first order: many congratulations to all at ReAct. I wish you the best with your future endeavours and look forward to my next visit with keen anticipation!