West Side Story continues at the Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire until 17 July.
Rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Kilworth House has come bounding out of hibernation with a grand and reverent, if slightly tame production of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ epic musical, West Side Story.
Despite being nearly hidden from sight in the beautiful Leicestershire countryside, Kilworth House’s semi-open-air theatre has a huge and well-deserved annual following of theatregoers, and this year’s first offering is likely to impress them.
Paul Farnsworth’s design is rooted right in the faded glory of America’s 1950s industrial estates, distressed billboards still croaking the American Dream, rusty, scrapped cars and derelict shipping containers. The gangs swing like caged animals through the abandoned scaffolding. It feels oppressive in all the right ways, and it’s huge in scale, drifting right past the wings and almost into the woodland beyond.
For the most part, this is a very solid production. Our female leads really stand out, Sophia Ragavelas in particular is outstanding in her maturity and voice, balancing Anita’s fiery sensuality and mournful stoicism with masterful skill.
Likewise, Laila Zaidi’s Maria is full of naivety and passion in all the right places, and an incredibly warm, bright soprano. Liam Doyle is a decent Tony, but it would be great to see him let go and really sing out more.
Jerome Robbins is, of course, ever present in Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography, but she still manages to put her own flourishes into the piece. Her dancers are a joy to watch, the women explosive in their physicality, perfectly in sync with the rhythm and complexity of the piece. Naoimh Morgan and Molly-May Gardiner both perform with such intensity, they’re hard not to watch.
There are some frustrating choices here, though. Bernstein’s score is so full of complexity and precision, and on this occasion, Chris Whybrow’s sound design isn’t living up to the piece.
Quite apart from the problems with muffled mics, the balance and resonance of the production isn’t up to scratch. It’s also quite apparent that reducing the score to the tiny band contained within the left wing of the set is a mistake.
For the more modern musical, I’ve seen this ‘clown-car’ band work absolute wonders, but the epic landscape of the score feels stunted here, and there is a flute very much out of tune which becomes distracting. I wonder if perhaps we could have sacrificed a little more of the set to facilitate a bigger band – this would certainly be the show to do it.
It’s clear that as a unit, the actresses in the cast impress more; their performances coming alive through their voices and physicality. Though equal in technique, the men seem to be slower to deliver.
Accents, for example, weave in and out. The combat scenes feel too staged, even for the balletic nature of the show – the essence of a good stage fight is danger and spontaneity, hiding the anticipation of the actor, and there’s a hesitance here that gives the game away. In the prologue, particularly, the sense of danger should be tangible and full of pent-up rage, and it feels as though this is still developing.
There are, however, some standout performances from an authoritative Benjamin Yates as Riff (coping well despite his malfunctioning mic) and Justin Thomas as Bernardo, who leads by example with a fierce pride. Dermot Canavan, as Doc, proudly displays his acting chops in his moving damnation of the boys.
By Act II the cast does feel fiercer, the air has become sharper, and the male artists really step up to the mark here. They excel in their comic number ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, really getting into the satire of the number, which sets us up beautifully for the inevitable spiral into the final events of the tragedy.
This is a fine production, safe in the hands of director Matthew White, and absolutely worth the nip in the air (Kilworth has blankets to hire for a donation, very useful in this strange English summer we’re having) to come and watch. It’s a little held back at times, and there are on this occasion some real sound issues, but the cast members are solid and promise a decent rendition of this classic show.