by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim; dir Tim Willis
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
5 – 15 December 2012
There are reasonable grounds for asserting that this is one of those shows which should be left to professionals. The Loft’s version is probably as good as any other amateur production of the 1957 classic I’ve seen; but there are times when the scale and demands of the piece are simply too great even for a company as talented as this.
First the good points – and there are gratifyingly many. Bernstein and Sondheim’s songs are as potent and spine-tingling as ever, and musical director Matt Flint has pulled off a near-miracle in condensing the complexities of the score into a version for a 13-piece ensemble. The choreography by Jackie-Lee Lilwall is energetic and exciting, and director Tim Willis marshals his resources well, giving the scenes a pleasing variety of pace and mood. The company singing work is generally strong, and there are some stand-out individual performances: Chris Gilbey-Smith brings youthful idealism and energy to star-crossed lover Tony, gang leader Riff is charismatic and exceptionally well sung by Daniel Murray, and Charlotte Brooks brings passion and integrity to the role of Anita. Kelsey Checklin as Maria has a sweet, pure singing voice, but needs to develop her acting skills if she is to move into the premier league of the local amateur circuit. A special mention should go to Zoe Chamberlain for her moving rendition of the song Somewhere.
On the negative side, the ‘Puerto Rican’ accents veer wildly between Birmingham and the Indian subcontinent, with the occasional detour up the Welsh valleys. It’s almost inevitable that in a non-professional cast of 28 there will be one or two truly cringeworthy acting performances, and so it proves here. In a show famous for its dance routines, the execution of the choreography is not always as slick and well-synchronised as one would wish; and the set too often constricts the action, especially in the big numbers. And the production seems beset with sound problems: what should be heart-stopping moments are constantly undermined by crackling microphones. Overall, the piece feels under-rehearsed and not fully confident.
On balance, though, an enjoyable night in the theatre, if you can look beyond the shortcomings to appreciate the sublime score and the energy and commitment of the youthful cast.
West Side Story represents a huge undertaking for any amateur company. However, nowadays very few theatre companies attempt to cast a show like this solely from their core membership, but actively spread their nets far and wide to seek out the necessary talent. I, therefore, had high hopes of the production, especially as it was in the charge of a director well-versed in musicals, Tim Willis.
Sadly, I have to say that my hopes were not altogether fulfilled. Certainly, there are some great moments on offer and one or two outstanding performances, but, overall, the evening lacked that raw excitement that the ongoing conflict between the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, should engender. This stems from a rather weak opening where I felt there was too much reticence from the members of the gangs. Their unscripted asides and interjections were not delivered with the confidence which would really have established the hatred. All we got were indistinct mumblings.
Overall the girls come off better than the boys, and in the first half particularly they have a lot more spark than their male counterparts. Star of the show for me was Charlotte Brooks as Anita whose acting, singing, dancing and accent were spot on. Also notable were Daniel Murray, a strong voiced Riff, and Zoe Chamberlain who gave a lovely rendition of ‘Somewhere’. Lucy Maxwell gave a convincing portrayal of the would-be boy, Anybody’s.
The parts of Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of the piece, are almost unique in musicals of the latter part of the 20th century in that they require near operatic quality in the voices. Neither Chris Gilbey-Smith nor Kelsey Checklin quite hit the mark. Chris had apparently been unwell at some point in the run, and was clearly not up to his usual standard vocally, but the voice was really too light for Tony, especially set against the more dominating tone of Kelsey. Kelsey, herself, was overmiked for her singing of Maria’s music, resulting in a disturbing tremolo on the high notes. On the plus side, however, both roles were well acted. Douglas Gilbey-Smith looked the part, but made a rather lightweight Bernardo.
The band played well under Matt Flint’s direction, and I was sorry that they were not acknowledged by the cast at the curtain call. Jackie-Lee Lilwall had done an excellent job on the choreography – the dance numbers providing most of the highlights.
My high points of the evening were ‘America’, ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, the “dream sequence”, and the well-handled tragic finale.
One has to admire the Loft for tackling this classic show. The fact that it almost came off is not such a bad achievement.