Transferring Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Verona to Manhattan’s mean streets was an idea touched with genius decades ago.
The result was West Side Story, with its glorious Bernstein and Sondheim score allied to a stark message.
Although some of the-then cool dialogue (dig and daddy-o) is now a bit archaic, nothing else has been lost since its Broadway debut in 1957 and the subsequent 1961 film adaptation. Indeed, in many respects it is more relevant than ever.
For example, any young hoodie thinking gang warfare is neat would be given serious food for thought by visiting the show’s latest incarnation at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. West Side Story’s tale of knives, guns, racial tension and senseless territorial claims over a tiny, grotty area is as true today as it was in the New York of the 1950s.
Instead of the aristocratic households of the Montagues and Capulets, the show explores the rivalry between two teenage gangs of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The all-white Jets become involved in a turf war with the newly-arrived Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants. This is bad enough but when Tony, who formerly belonged to the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, trouble brews.
The principals are ideally cast. You can feel the passion bubbling up for Dom Hodson’s Tony (standing in for Louis Maskell) and Katie Hall’s Marie. The peacemaking Tony’s solos - Something’s Coming and Maria - send out the hints that romance is on the way and those glorious duets, Tonight and the ballet sequence in Somewhere, chill the spine.
The show’s highlights feature Katie Hall’s soaring soprano vocals but there is a compelling performance from Djalenga Scott (Anita) and an exhilarating, athletic and talented young cast. The Jets launch the evening with a splendid When You’re A Jet and the dancing from the rival gangs is superb.
A talented orchestra ensures Howard Panter’s Ambassador Theatre Group maintains the standards, and the monochrome backdrops of the Big Apple, dominated by the Empire State Building, are evocative.
But for all the show’s delightful moments, menace is never very far away and despite their romantic hopes, there’s no new way of living or a way of forgiving around the corner for Tony and Maria. Love, on this occasion, fails to conquer as the tale heads for its shocking finale, with the Jets and the Sharks belatedly realising just what they have done to each other.