REVIEW: WEST SIDE STORY (Bishopsgate Institute) ★★★★

Earlier this week I was treated to The Bishopsgate Institute’s own amateur production of West Side Story, presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International. With lyrics written by the unrivalled Stephen Sondheim, this production also celebrates the centenary of the births of the musical’s composer, the legendary Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins, the show’s original director and choreographer. Bishopsgate Institute certainly seem to be an exciting company to watch out for; their last production Ragtime – The Musical was nominated in several categories at the Broadway World UK 2016 Awards including; Best Fringe Production, Best Director, Best Choreographer and Best Costume Design.

West Side Story is a 20th century all singing-all dancing reimagining of Romeo & Juliet set on the streets of New York, and exploring the rivalry between gangs The Jets and The Sharks. In the midst of the warfare, Tony and Maria fall in love, despite being from opposing families and cultural backgrounds.

There is no doubting the professionalism and talent from the creative team of this production, as they optimise all creative possibilities provided by The Great Hall at Bishopsgate Institute – a stunning location. Director Toby Hine weaves the action and the set design together very well, telling a story that is both heartfelt and dangerous, and a visual treat.

This production is cleverly performed in traverse, allowing for a longer stage space and immersing the audience in the action. The very impressive 28-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Ben Ferguson and Ashley Jacobs (Associate MD) are spell-binding throughout with unstoppable groove. Bernstein’s score swells and stirs beautifully, and the musicians delivered the piece perfectly in the capable hands of Ferguson with a largely well balanced sound in the space.

Emily McDouall is a captivating Maria, her soaring soprano vocals and a youthful energy worked well paired with James Gower-Smith as the charming Tony. The pair had great chemistry and created several moments of magic within their shared scenes. Victoria Greenway played a feisty Anita, using her fabulous voice and strong movement skills to explore Anita’s arc with maturity and heart break. Luke Leahy played the rebellious Riff (chief instigator of the gang violence); full of energy and charisma, he led the Jet ensemble with passion and ease.

It was wonderful to see such talent and diversity within the 40 strong ensemble – this production is packed full of energy and sass. Lemington Ridley’s choreography was exciting and worked in complete harmony with the music to heighten the technical grandeur of the musicians, particularly within the numbers Mambo and Gee, Officer Krupke. The choreography worked particularly well to allow the cast to explore the interesting set design, with wheel-able staircases becoming a part of the movement allowing for smooth transitions and pushing the boundaries of the space. The use of these staircases offered so much to the performance and were a real highlight for me, the precision of their movements throughout the show was excellently executed by the ensemble cast, heightening the sense of danger on the streets of New York. Jack Weir’s lighting design too was impressive, tying the show’s components together, allowing for smooth transitions and intimate moments.

Traditionally this show depends heavily upon the choreography, and whilst this company filled the space with their passion, there were a few technically imprecise moments. The team worked hard to balance the 28 piece orchestra against the vocals of the cast, but sadly there were times when it was difficult to hear individual company members due to a microphone imbalance, particularly in the girls’ ensemble scenes, which was a shame.

Overall, this is an ambitious and highly impressive amateur performance. Despite the current heat wave, this company have the unique ability to give the audience goose bumps. The constant presence of rivalry and race in our current social climate seem to be more relevant than ever, and diversity within theatre is explored and celebrated explosively, with strong talent displayed by all members of the ensemble. The power of the story and musicality was infectious and the show itself leaves the audience pondering some hard hitting themes surrounding inclusion, humanity and whether love (and a bit of clicking in unison) can conquer all.

Reviewed by Lisa MacGregor

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