West Side Story. Photo © Sadler's Wells

West Side Story.
Photo © Sadler’s Wells

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; August 8, 2013    

Jessica Wilson    

“West Side Story” is arguably the most iconic musical of the twentieth century. 2008 saw the musical reach its 50th birthday. Its narrative and timeless message remain as relevant to audiences as ever, told through its depiction of racial prejudice and lovers denied their happiness.

As a predominantly dance-orientated musical, “West Side Story” relies much on its choreography. It still endures, Jerome Robbins’ dance surviving the test of time and speaking to each audience it welcomes. The tragic tale of corruption and violence has echoes of events in today’s twenty-first century world, with gangs fighting to remain on top.

The musical requires extremely versatile performers who can act, sing and dance with a certain street toughness while maintaining technical precision. The international cast produced the goods one would expect, although the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Right from the entry of the Jets, the show promises and delivers an evening of synchronised passion behind the movement with everyone eager to tell the story. Slowly, though, what begins as an extremely slick portrayal of territorial camaraderie becomes brutal. But even in the chaos of the fight scenes following the appearance of the Sharks, strong, clean lines were everywhere.

Tony, played by Liam Tobin, and Maria, by Elena Sancho Pereg, were initially unconvincing in comparison to the rest of the cast. As the main protagonists, they are caught up in so many emotions and odds, yet failed to convey them. As the story progressed, however, they seemed to relax into their roles, showing a little more intention behind the dramatic exchanges. Pereg also looked slightly uncomfortable in her performance of “I Feel Pretty,” and seemed somewhat awkward as she danced what is the simplest of choreographed solos. Her discomfort did, though, highlight the dance talent of the rest of the cast.

Elena Sancho Pereg and Liam Tobin in West Side Story. Photo © Sadler's Wells

Elena Sancho Pereg and Liam Tobin in West Side Story.
Photo © Sadler’s Wells

Despite this lack of ‘drive’, Pereg’s depiction of youthful and all-encompassing love was touching. Tobin was inspiring in his refusal to fight the Sharks alongside the Jets, epitomising the hope for social change which is eventually unveiled following his tragic death. His portrayal of Tony’s naive belief of how easy it can be to prevent violence was most poignant. Indeed, the audience fell as much head over heels for the couple as the pair did for each other. Their first performance of “Somewhere” was perhaps the most moving moment, with the ‘Dream Scene’ a faultless display of the innocence of first love – lyrical, serene and an escape from harsh realities.

Elsewhere, the dances alone could have sustained the evening. Penelope Armstead-Williams shone as Anita. Her high-kicking explosions of emotion tore across the stage in a Latino frenzy full of vitality and charm. Her lead in “America” was mischievously joyful, degrading San Juan and dreaming aloud of the better life the Puerto Ricans believed they would live in the US. The sense of foreboding the musical number reveals, however, was all too well confirmed in the sorrow that is to come; the violence of the streets shattering the initial appeal of Manhattan.

The captivating dances of the rest of the cast prompted a few goosebumps here and there. The only concern was that the songs from the leads felt as though they were interrupting the flow of energy created by the dance. It was always the dance that had most power, displayed the divide of the cultures and the pent up anger rather than the vocals and accompanying scenes.

Both street gangs were of the rough-and-ready sort, bottling up boiling-over tempers and emotive frustrations. It’s a shame, though, that their girlfriends are all too often ‘lost’ at the back of the stage and play no real part in proceedings aside from showing some fantastically flexible movement in dances. The inclusion of the racist Lieutenant left an unpleasant taste, although one that was entirely relevant in conveying the injustice of the Sharks position in society. Tony’s belief in a fair fight only heightened the message of the story: street violence will stop at nothing but will surely have terrible consequences. His wearing of a watch was noted: a sign of time ticking away rapidly for the young couple, their time together limited by the seconds of his life slowly but surely counting down towards an inevitable end.