University College’s West Side Story is an ambitious production, taking on a musical that’s not just known for the tragedy of its finale, but also for its difficult dance sequences. While UC’s finished product may not be all that polished, it’s high in energy, and a largely enjoyable spectacle. Albert Elton was one of the show’s highlights as the male lead, Tony. Mixing boyish humour with emotional range and impressive commitment to character, Tony managed to be endearingly silly in his performance of ‘Maria’ but then heartbreakingly raw at the climax of the show. Claudia Young was another standout as Anita, Maria’s sister-in-law. Young not only had vocal and dancing talent, but combined that with a bold yet nuanced portrayal of a character who is flawed but deeply sympathetic. Mollie Farrell as Maria was sweet, and certainly the strongest singer of the cast, but her American accent was a strange choice for a character so defined by her Puetro Rican roots and her status as an outsider in white America.
The choreography, by cast members Claudia Young and Caitlin Janus, was strong, particularly in iconic numbers like the ‘Prologue’ and ‘America’. They were also two of the strongest dancers in the cast – along with Tristan Koay and Angus Mackintosh – and there were times when the rest of the ensemble lagged behind in the big numbers. Choreography that required careful synchronisation was often let down by energetic but unpolished dancers.
While this production never shied away from the darkness at its core, there were moments of charm and humour along the way. A lot of this came from Bri Baird and Oliver Adler in the role of ‘Props’ – faceless figures in black morph suits who acted as set pieces in ‘Maria’ and toy mannequins in the wedding scene. The strangeness of these figures, and the earnestness with which Elton and Farrell interacted with them, made these moments of high romance silly, but infinitely more entertaining for it.
There were, however, several clumsy moments to go along with all the show’s successes. The direction of dialogue-heavy scenes was overdone, though would perhaps have been more suited to a larger venue. The transitions between scenes were generally slow and inelegant, but some – like the transition into the all-important Gym Dance – were peculiarly awkward. Overly long, with musical backing seeming to come in too late and stagehands both visible and audible, these transitions not only pulled me out of the emotion of the production but brought its entire energy down.
As is often the case with amateur musicals, the sound operator seemed to struggle to balance the volume of the music with the action taking place on stage. While some particularly strong singers, like Farrell, could hold their own against the overly loud soundtrack, most were drowned out, leaving many numbers falling flat.
However, Jonathan Evans’s lighting design was strong, creating drama and romance when needed, but never distracting from the actors. The climatic scene of the rumble was particularly noteworthy, with the flashing red lights bringing extra intensity and drama to the moment, while also practically aiding the staging of Riff and Bernardo’s dramatic deaths. The costumes were also impressive, with Ailish Cook and Bec Francis’s designs using colour well to mark out the different gangs, and creating a distinct visual style that blended contemporary fashion with the vintage look expected for West Side Story.
Overall this is a funny and enjoyable production, while staying true to the tragedy that defines it. West Side Story may have been overly ambitious, but the team that put it together was clearly passionate and, technical faults aside, the characters that drive the story are engaging and sympathetic.
University College’s production of West Side Story ran from the 2nd – 5th of August in the Guild Theatre.