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West Side Story (Susan Elkin reviews)

society/company: Cambridge Theatre Company
performance date: 24 Oct 2018
venue: Great Hall at the Leys

Arguably the greatest (in every sense) musical of the second half of the twentieth century, West Side Story is a colossal undertaking for a, mostly, youth cast but they rise admirably to the challenge under Chris Cuming’s direction.

Cambridge Theatre Company has managed to assemble 22 boys for this project which is, in itself, a real achievement given how dance heavy the show is. Cuming gets them moving so imaginatively and slickly that he enables every one of them to “dance” even when the moves are not, in themselves, complicated or difficult. He has a real gift for getting the very best out of young people and making it look splendidly and colourfully dramatic.

Working on Scott Hunter’s set with scaffolding across the back to create a range of levels and the transitory atmosphere of uneasy immigrants (ever topical), the cast of fifty five, pulsing with energy, are directed to make good use of the space. They leap, slide, race, somersault, jive, shout, click fingers and a lot more. The band, of which more anon, are in another room.

The two central performances are outstanding. Jasmine Cairns, as Maria, commands the stage whenever she’s on it and she has a strikingly mature singing voice. She’s a convincing actor too especially in the devastating last scene. The piece is loosely based, of course, on Romeo and Juliet and does not end happily.

Olly Manley who plays Tony has a warm, melifluous, well modulated singing voice and yes, his acting ensures that we all agree he’s a lad any girl would fall for, irrespective of his background.

Abigail Mann is good value as the jabbering, anxious Anita with a good mezzo voice and Richard Sockett ( adult and a familiar face on the Cambridge Theatre scene) adds gravitas and balance as Doc. Dan Lane as Riff is an accomplished actor and Oli Wyatt brings plenty of oily malevolence to Bernado

MD Graham Brown has thirteen excellent musicians tucked away elsewhere in the building all doing their utmost. There are two problems with this, though.

First, this pared down arrangement does not do justice to Bernstein’s wonderful score which was originally meant for a full size symphony orchestra. Here the texture is often woefully thin with middle parts missing. And of course almost everyone in the audience knows the music very well so you can’t help feeling the gaps.

Second, a vibrant, complex piece like West Side Story demands the immersiveness of live music close by. If Brown and co are elsewhere – monitor screens etc, notwithstanding – he can’t feel what’s happening in stage and in places that shows.

I spoke to Cuming (having interviewed him for Sardines last summer) during the interval and learned that these young people had an intensive week together in August. Since then it’s been weekend rehearsals. Cuming reckons it totals the equivalent of about two and a half weeks. Many professional companies would gib at so little time for such a colossal undertaking. Bravo, Cambridge Theatre Company. You continue to do a magnificent job.

 First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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