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How the West Side Was Won

Posted on 16th February 2010. 6 Comments

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Jonny Muir falls for DULOG’s West Side Story, 26th 30th January 2010, Gala Theatre

For two years in a row, round about January, I have been going to the Gala Theatre to watch a production in which DULOG kick the ever-living crap out of every other DST show that year. Anything Goes and Guys & Dolls remain two of my favourite Durham productions, with standards of performance and professionalism that put most other Durham shows to shame. This tradition continues unabated with DULOG’s excellent production of West Side Story, a story so familiar to us all that it hardly seems worth a plot summary. We all know the beloved musical (immortalised in the classic 1961 film version) is loosely based on Romeo & Juliet. We all know it trades Verona for 1950s New York and the Capulets and the Montagues for the Sharks and the Jets. We all know it follows the star-cross’d lovers Tony and Maria, he a white American, she a Puerto Rican.

“…the show sprang to life…”

I must admit, when the show first started, I was a little worried. For the first couple of scenes and songs, the pacing was a little erratic, the singing lacked strength, and the dance routines seemed either haphazardly choreographed or haphazardly performed, I couldn’t be sure which. It appeared that that cast were having an off-night, and that DULOG’s Gala show would disappoint me for perhaps the first time.

But then, all of a sudden, something happened, and the show sprang to life. The dance routines suddenly became far more animated and were performed with finesse and vigour, the singing became energetic and powerful, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying myself. Seemingly from the flick of a switch, the production went from mildly disappointing to the best thing I’ve seen on a Durham stage in a long time.

The cast were excellent, and the production was filled with wonderful performances. Every member of the ensemble (especially those in the chorus) deserves praise for their tireless dedication to providing characters filled with warmth and colour, but allow me to single out a few individual performances. Cassie Bradley as Anybodys was wonderful, with one of the most vibrantly characterised performances in the show. Will Steel as Doc brought a lovely touch of humanity and dignity to a role usually played as caricature. Rebecca Collingwood was brilliant as Maria, managing to be delicate and tender, yet fiery and hot-blooded.

Starr and Grosvenor-Taylor provided two of the most electric performances of the evening

Every scene with Ben Starr’s Barnardo and Becky Grosvenor-Taylor’s Anita in it sizzled with chemistry. Indeed, Starr and Grosvenor-Taylor provided two of the most electric performances of the evening, and, in a production where the Puerto Rican accents were a bit sketchy, Starr’s Puerto Rican accent was truly awesome. Ollie Stevenson’s Lieutenant Schrank, was genuinely terrifying, and his brief appearances nicely punctuated the first half, providing a welcome change of tone that kept the production engaging. Ollie Lynes brilliantly supplied much-needed comic relief at these moments as Officer Krupke, and it is to his credit that he really shone in such a small role.

I admired the way that the grungy aesthetic of Butler’s production accentuated some of the more sombre elements of the story

Unfortunately, the weakest part of the production was Doug Gibbs as Tony. Gibbs has a great voice once he gets some power into it, but his songs were pitched either just above or just below his comfortable range, and it really showed. While I found him likeable as an actor, I thought that his rapport with Collingwood was a little hollow and flat. It seemed to me that the demands of the male lead role got the better of him at times, and that he may have been more suited to a supporting role.

This has to be the most technically proficient Durham show I’ve seen all year, and was directed with talent and vision by Emma Butler. It is a testament to her skill that the production was so excellently paced, the performances so animated and exciting, and tone so unique. West Side Story has always been one of the scruffiest of popular musicals, but I have not seen as dark a production of West Side Story before. I admired the way that the grungy aesthetic of Butler’s production accentuated some of the more sombre elements of the story, but I admired more her marvellous control over the tone of the production, the way she segued effortlessly from darker moments into the livelier scenes. It was clear that Butler was working with an incredibly competent technical team – the lighting was effective and skilfully used, whereas the scene changes were effective and unobtrusive and polished.

Of course Musical Director Jo Cichonska and the band must be applauded for their consistently brilliant playing, the way they worked with the cast to superbly render some of the most beloved songs of the last century. To pull off a tight rendition of “America” or “I Feel Pretty” is one thing, but to pull of a rendition of those songs that makes us forget we have heard them countless times before is quite another. As I was listening to the songs, I was astonished by the way the band and the cast made these songs dazzling, entertaining, and most importantly, fresh.

Madeleine Mutch’s choreography was cool and slick, and thankfully avoided being too derivative of the film’s iconic style. The routines were vibrant, eclectic, and, at times, wonderfully witty. But Mutch’s true triumph was her ability to find a routine that perfectly suited the tone of a song. “Be Cool” was an excellent example of choreography that just felt right for the song, its snappy elasticism was absolutely pitch-perfect. Similarly, the dance where Tony and Maria first meet was beautifully expressive, achieving a kind of poeticism in its grace. Suffice it to say that the choreography was consistently excellent, and was one of the true joys of the production.

In its second half, West Side Story, as a musical, gets considerably bleaker, and while some productions struggle with this change in tone, I felt that Butler and her cast handled it admirably. The pacing of the second half, while much slower than the first, did not drag, and some excellent performances made it genuinely affecting. Grosvenor-Taylor and Collingwood brought a great poignancy to the final deaths of the story, and kept the production from being cloyingly sentimental. The triumphant tone at the end of the production I think was entirely appropriate, as West Side Story continues DULOG’s proud tradition of blowing every other Durham show out of the water. If I see a better production in Durham this year, I promise to eat it.

Photography: Tim Foster

6 Comments »

  • Sam said:

    Wow. No racism in here or anything, I thought you could have at least been slightly derogatory to the fact that the show incorporated Puerto Ricans!!
    I saw WSS, liked it, didn’t think it was a patch on last years, but there were some awesome bits in it. Like some of the dances and Grovenor Taylor.

  • Monsieur Tickle Tackle said:

    I think you are right… the show was great on the whole BUT doug gibbs was very dissapointing. Many members of the chorus seemed to act and sing to a higher standard than he could, and its a shame the show was let down by its less than proficient leading man.
    That said, I did think the show would not overall be as good as last years or the year before’s, but it did do justice to the DULOG gala. The lighting was excellent as was the band, but i did not like the set at all. I think i even remember bits of it from guys and dolls last year.. was this due to budget constraints?
    You also seem to forget to mention the costumes, which I thought were dire. Again, maybe this was budget constraints or laziness, but it made the whole show look a bit messy, and not in an intentional way.
    But otherwise, a rather good show

  • Anon said:

    The set was hired in from Scenic Projects. You may well have recognised bits from last year as they often swap pieces between shows to make them as effective as possible.

  • Anon 2 said:

    Also, I don’t understand this costume situation. I thought they were really good actually. Or at least, not as bad as Palatinate and, now, Monsieur Tickle Tackle thinks.

  • Anon 2 said:

    I don’t know why I put “Also” at the start, it’s probably because it’s late and I am slightly tipsy

  • felicity said:

    i went to see WSS and i thought is was absolutely amazing.
    the choreography was mindblowing and obviously required sheer talent.
    the cast worked exceptionally well together, and the two gangs contrasted well.
    the band was insane! especially the guitarist, who’s hair was just too cool, you could see him totally losing himself. ledgend.
    altogether, a remarkable performance which i thoroughly enjoyed.