West Side Story – Victoria Warehouse, Manchester

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A scene from the National Youth Music Theatre production of West Side Story at the Victoria Warehouse, Manchester

West Side Story, a National Youth Music Theatre production, was staged at the Victoria Warehouse, Manchester.

It’s new for the National Youth Music Theatre to launch a show outside London, and it’s a triumph that West Side Story has been staged – like Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company stagings or Kenneth Branagh’s riveting Macbeth – in an unusual out-of-centre venue (the Victoria Warehouse near Old Trafford, a 19th century industrial store which is spacious, testing and quite brilliantly used).

The production, directed by Nikolai Foster, unforgettably choreographed by Drew McOnie and sensitively conducted by musical director Tom Deering, is a show to cherish and cheer about.

Are there reservations? Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Tarcy’s initially rather staid Tony (but then, Tony is withdrawn, diffident) takes longer than Amara Okereke’s visually and vocally appetising Maria to establish himself. Happily, he relaxes and softens up. Awkward early moves and an unengaging blank face suddenly wax natural. Vocally, he zooms – ‘Something’s Coming’ is terrific.

By ‘One Hand, One Heart’, the lovers are singing from the same hymn sheet. Tony’s alienation from street life – despite the revenge murder he impulsively commits (slaying the Sharks’ leader Bernardo, played by the very capable Max Jorquera) – is particularly well established.

Bernardo’s victim, Riff (16-year-old Dominic Harrison) is one of the notable treats of the evening, as he exudes remarkable peer command and musical charm. If only we’d seen, and heard, more (Harrison’s ‘Jet Song’ and ‘Cool’ go like a dream).

All these young singer/actors would, I’m sure, point out the real heroes are the the show’s immortal composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim – while librettist Arthur Laurents wonderfully transforms the Verona of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to New York’s impoverished Upper West Side. The poverty of the surroundings is beautifully portrayed via Takis’ atmospheric, forlorn two-layer set.

Foster’s direction periodically shines. The slick way his Jets issue from Doc’s Drugstore for a set piece wide-amphitheatre dance, then dissolve back into a compact blocking rear-stage, is jaw-dropping. Every one of McOnie’s magical dance sequences take the breath away (give or take the odd loss of tension once or twice at a changeover).

Tarcy’s Tony apart, there are ten members of the Jets – aged 14–18 – each given an eye-catching sequence at some point. Fourteen-year-old Nathanael Landskroner (Action) deserves mention for his touching pathos near the close. Sario Watanabe-Solomon (A-rab) is one of the hippest, punchiest and raunchiest gang members, a kind of replacement leader after Riff’s death. William Leaf Puvanesan contributes plenty as Shark boy Chino.

Among the 15 talented girl gang aficianadas, Megan Gilbert (Rosalia) and Sienna Kelly (Anita) are outstanding, and the all-too brief ‘America’ (reprise needed?) takes the roof off. The Ibsenesque interruption from the mysterious Somewhere Girl (Rebecca Ridout) is stunning.

Credit to Ben Cracknell for the superb lighting. Musical director Deering has a subtle, restrained, instinctive grasp for what works best. Here he cleverly allows both the phenomenally talented young 32-strong band and the singers to blossom.

Roderic Dunnett

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