REVIEW: West Side Story with the wow factor

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Take 50 or so highly talented young people from the High Peak … expert guidance on choreography, musical interpretation and acting … high quality technical expertise and a top class orchestra … and what do you get?

A West Side Story with the wow factor.

The musical performed at Buxton Opera House from February 21-25 was high energy, vibrant and extremely moving.

The curtain opened to a minimal set of scaffolding which created a sense of a stark urban environment seeming to trap the people who live there. As soon as the rival gangs The Sharks (differentiated by maroon T-shirts) and The Jets (all in black) entered prowling around the stage, I thought: ‘Could it be? Yes, it could. Something’s coming: something good.’ I was not disappointed.

Leonard Bernstein’s updating of Romeo and Juliet is very close to opera and it makes real demands on its performers. Musical director Mark Goggins has inspired soaring singing from this cast. The duets of Tony (Jak Skelly) and Maria ( Natalie Wood lookalike Alexandra Hazard) took your breath away. Natalie Coverley, who played Anita, led an electrifying performance of ‘America’. I was also impressed by Stewart Bowden’s and the team of Jets’ comic rendition of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. At the end of Act 2 the whole cast sang their hearts out to stunning effect, when the violence of ‘The Rumble’ was counterpointed with the romantic ‘Tonight’.

The singing in West Side Story is complemented with a strong emphasis on dance. In this production, it ranged from the athletic, raw ‘street’ dancing of the gangs to a balletic duet which mirrored the tenderness between the two young lovers. A shout out to choreographer Debbie Norris for her varied and dynamic routines, especially as some of the cast had probably not danced before.

This production felt like a real ensemble piece, so it seems wrong to do too much singling out: these young people gave their all and there were no weak links. I was particularly impressed by the authenticity of the Puerto Rican and New York accents.

I was also struck by how current this musical felt, with its portrayal of a divided society, its violence culminating in gun crime, its demonisation of immigrants and its depiction of the tragic loss of teenage lives.

Director Paul Kerryson has proved that if you set young people high standards, they reach and even exceed them. This was a professional production with an amateur cast; it gladdened and touched the heart. To him I would say: ‘There’s a place for you: right here in Buxton. More community productions of this calibre, please.’