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Praiseworthy interpretation of an American great

Tre Ventour reviews West Side Story which was at Royal & Derngate…

Adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story takes place in America. Verona becomes New York City in the 1950s. The feuding families are displaced by warring gangs. The White American Jets are led by Riff (Gordon Ritchie) and the Puerto Rican Sharks (Capulets) are led by Bernardo (Ama Scuotto). At a dance Tony (Sean Page), a Jet, and Maria (Amanda Giuliano), a Puerto Rican, see each other from across the hall. It’s love at first sight. You know the rest.

I really enjoyed this rendition. Northampton Musical Theatre Company have done well and the film still holds up fifty years and more after its release. Based on the book by Arthur Laurents, NMTC’s West Side Story is the real deal. From the songs to the acting to the sets, I loved it. Though, I still cringe when I’m watching a film or play set in the mid-twentieth century and characters are saying “daddio”, be it American Graffiti or West Side Story. That street lingo is accurate to the time and it’s dated, but it’s still comical.

The songs that tell their own story if you are attuned enough to the poetry that’s being said. The dance choreography (Lotti Franks, Helen Kenney, Jame Bignell) is also fantastic. This is an animated musical: exhilarating, passionate and energetic, with a score (Graham Tear) that hits a big six. At many times throughout, it felt very West End. You could really tell the cast were invested. More times than not, I’ve seen plays where the cast phones in the performance. Never with NMTC.

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‘Us and Them’ is a phrase on everybody’s tongues. Whether we’re building walls or deporting British citizens back to the Caribbean West Side Story is a tale as old as time. We’re in 2018 but we’re still spewing the same hate speech people were saying back in Jim Crow America and Enoch Powell’s Britain. West Side Story is a tale about race, and how colour splits communities. This play is a reflection of 1950s America’s race relations, but it’s also a reflection of the present day.

Gender is also on the table. We see women through the Male Gaze, but I also think we see men through the Male Gaze as well, if that’s possible. We see men from a male standpoint. So, we see men from the perspective of Tony (Page). He sees his friends as people who want to fight all the time. He’s thinking, why can’t people just get on? Why do our differences have to divide us? Why does the male sex always have to be out to prove something? West Side Story is a dick-swinging contest, a reflection of what it meant to be male in the 1950s and 1960s. If you didn’t fight, you weren’t considered a proper man, thus showing men from a man’s standpoint.

Maria (Giuliano) is a beautiful, young Puerto-Rican woman and sister to the gang’s leader, but falls for an American. Set in the concrete canopies of a New York neighbourhood, two Diasporas battle it out for control. Armed with knives, guns and rocks, all the gangs want to do is fight. But our star-crossed love affair sets off a tragic chain events, that by the end might manage to show the two gangs that they don’t need to fight. What is so bad about diversity? What is so bad about being different? Our differences should bring us together, not further apart.

Whites prefer Whites, Blacks prefer Blacks and it goes on and on. Communities in the first half of last century very much stuck to their own. In the modern day, it is common to see interracial couples with mixed-race children. Yet, it is still common for communities to stick with their own. We are still living in a very culturally-frigid society and a very racist world. Institutional prejudice is still very much alive (through micro-aggressions and covert racism), regardless of whether we’re talking the police, media, politics or in education.

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This is an exceptional adaptation about gangs battling it out for small plots of land in the West Side of New York. This could be argued to be allegorical for how governments fight petty wars over sand and oil. Sure, they may make a ton of money, but is it worth it when so many lives have been lost for it?

This ‘pettiness’ is what drives the story with its epic dance numbers, filled with flamboyance, colour and charisma. This is the musical genre as it should be. Watching musicals like this; it’s a sad indictment of our current reality. I love the theatre, because unlike films, musicals are always being redone end reinvented. In Hollywood few musicals are made outside of the yearly Disney film. Hopefully, one day, that will change. From the social commentary to the choreography to the sets to the songs, West Side Story is another one of the American Greats and NMTC’s take deserves high praise.

If I was to really nitpick, I would say that it’s around ten minutes too long and the play could be improved with omission of the song “Somewhere”. As good as that was, it’s not needed and it holds the play static. It felt like padding. In doing this, it should be a play in one act (act two was insultingly short in comparison to act one).

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Moreover, if this was produced by the Royal and Derngate, I would have discussed whitewashing. When a musical is not all-white, but there are White actors playing roles that should be allocated to people of colour, it raises question marks. Perhaps it might be good for NMTC to encourage more diversity on their intake. If they had more people coming from Black and Asian communities, these discrepancies could be avoided if and when they choose to do musicals with characters that come from different parts of the world.

Nonetheless, the play works. It’s entertaining for all the family. It’s called West Side Story but its message is one that should be to the world outside of a few streets in New York.

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