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West Side Story review: Go see it!

PUBLISHED: 09:11 09 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:30 09 November 2017

St Albans Musical Theatre Company's production of West Side Story [Picture: Simon Wallace]

St Albans Musical Theatre Company's production of West Side Story [Picture: Simon Wallace]

Simon Wallace

Malcolm Holt reviews West Side Story at The Alban Arena in St Albans.

Maria (Katie Reimann), Tony (James Schouten) and Anita (Rachel Breeze) in St Albans Musical Theatre Company's production of West Side Story [Picture: Simon Wallace]Maria (Katie Reimann), Tony (James Schouten) and Anita (Rachel Breeze) in St Albans Musical Theatre Company's production of West Side Story [Picture: Simon Wallace]

On its first night performance of West Side Story, St Albans Musical Theatre Company’s Jets took to the stage so quietly that it took a moment for the audience to realise that the production had started.

The lights were still up and it wasn’t clear whether this was because the lighting crew also hadn’t realised that the show had started or if this was a device intended to interrupt the boundary between performer and audience, bringing the latter onto the New York streets from the outset.

After this distracting start, the production began to gain momentum, although the entrance and ensuing interaction of the Jets and the Sharks felt a little tentative on occasion, as if the performers were still finding their feet. First night nerves perhaps?

As it was, not everyone managed to convey the machismo and danger of the New York street.

There was a fleeting moment when the actors and orchestra didn’t quite gel, although this was outweighed later by some muscular and confident accompaniment to complement and enhance, for instance, the colourful, earthy and exuberant I Feel Pretty or the hilarious Gee, Officer Krupke.

In the first ‘soliloquy’ of the night, James Schouten’s vocal performance, as Tony, of Something’s Coming, reminiscent of the likes of Howard Keel, conveyed beautifully the vulnerability, naivety and innocence that would contribute to the character’s demise.

Tony’s balcony duet with Katie Reimann’s Maria was striking and dramatic and, as they later imagined their wedding day, the operatic intensity of their voices blended harmoniously and to deeply moving effect.

The set design and lighting were simple but effective, bringing a three-dimensionality to the performance.

The use of shadow on one occasion, echoing the reaching out and almost-touching of hands, offered a subtle visual and evocation of the irony inherent in the musical, given the backdrop of fear, violence and racism within which the romance is set.

If the outstanding vocal performances in the first half were occasionally mixed with slightly unconvincing acting, the start of the second half, the Jets’ Officer Krupke, was the moment when the production soared onto a different plane.

Casting off the awkwardness referred to earlier and finding their feet for the first time, the Jets tore into the song’s wildly acrobatic choreography with a vitality and enthusiasm that provoked belly laughter from the audience.

The full-blooded and light-hearted nature of this scene provided a shocking counterpoint to equally full-blooded scenes of violence and assault, propelling the show towards its inevitable and dramatic conclusion, with a genuinely ‘lump in the throat’ closing performance from Katie Reimann as Maria.

The main protagonists aside, it is difficult to pick out a particular performance, although the acting of Soda Stand owner Doc (Tony Bradburn) comes to mind, as does a perfectly pitched rendition of Somewhere courtesy of Louise (Emily Dell), during the beautifully costumed and choreographed evocation of hope and desperation of the Another Place ballet.

All in all then, despite some unevenness of performance in the first half of the show, this production triumphed, producing a well-directed and remarkably ‘professional’ presentation of what is, for any company, a daunting challenge.

Go see it!

• West Side Story can be seen at The Alban Arena until Saturday, November 11.

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