It’s an amateur performer’s dream scenario (or a professional’s for that matter); to be cast in what is essentially a non-professional show but professionally produced, directed, choreographed and designed ...all with the backing of a full-blown 28-strong West End orchestra playing the full and original orchestrations. Now all you need is one of musical theatre’s all-time great scores. So, how about West Side Story!
That’s what is going on at London’s Bishopsgate Institute this week – although I’m sorry to have to tell you that the entire run is not surprisingly sold out. Toby Hine’s production – which famously bases itself on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – is set in the traverse format with the audience flanking the stage on either side in a long gymnasium-style set-up, with MD Ben Ferguson’s all-important musicians taking pride of place at one entire end of Bishopsgate Institute’s Great Hall.
There are virtually no props (just a couple of pre-interval knives and the act II appearance of a gun of course), and the set design envelopes the auditorium with the presence of wire fencing behind both back rows – which several of the 39-strong cast appear behind at certain points. Simple scaffolding fills the opposite end to the orchestra which is nicely complemented by a couple of moving metal staircases – creatively co-ordinated, integrated and moved with expert precision throughout by various cast members.
With Leonard Bernstein’s sublime score reproduced to absolute perfection, you could say the pressure falls heavily on the cast to come up with the goods – in fact you can bet Stephen Sondheim is counting on it! Luckily, the inclusion of James Gower-Smith (Tony), Emily McDouall (Maria) and Victoria Greenway (Anita) is a truly inspired piece of casting, with all three pretty much faultless and an absolute joy to both watch and listen to. Here are three performers showcasing a fitting level of skill and talent worthy of a West End soundtrack – and they know it! Every song is a highlight in itself, but I have to give special mention to the extraordinary act II performance of A Boy Like That / I Have a Love by Maria and Anita.
Strong support – also well-cast – comes from Christopher Georgiou as Bernardo, Louisa Roberts as Rosalia (providing great opposition to Anita in America) and Marsha Blake who performs a fine rendition of Somewhere during an interesting and creative departure from Tony and Maria’s usual dream sequence.
Of the ensemble: the Jets, Sharks, girlfriends and ‘adults’, performances are pretty strong across the board with plenty of appeal and watchability. What is clear is the high level of discipline in every single performance. Literally following in Jerome Robbins legendary footsteps, Lemington Ridley, Guy Salim and Chris Whittaker have done a fine job in injecting varying degrees of complexity for a mostly untrained company to follow, which isn’t easy when you consider Robbins’ original ballet-based choreography. The group routines, such as the famous dance at the gym, are exceptionally put together and performed. Gee, Officer Krupke is definitely one of the ensemble highlights performed by The Jets as is act I's wonderful America performed by Anita, Rosalie and the Puerto Rican girls.
The cast rightly received much applause from the willing audience on the night I attended but, as if to stamp their West End credentials on the evening, the finale is reserved for Ben Ferguson’s divine orchestra – who must also be relishing the chance to perform such a great score in its entirety. After the cast have finished their bows and left the stage, the orchestra strikes up for one last overture before receiving a standing ovation. Bravo, Mssrs. Bernstein, Laurents and Sonheim!