★★★★ | West Side Story, Sheffield Lyceum And UK Tour

Set in the mid 1950s, two rival gangs battle it out for control of their little piece of the Upper West Side of New York. The Jets, local boys whose families have lived there for generations, are at loggerheads with The Sharks, the Puerto Ricans, who are trying to settle into their new lives. Tony, the former leader of the Jets meets with Maria, the sister of Bernardo who is the leader of The Sharks, and the two fall madly in love. But as their love grows, so does the rivalry between the gangs, leading to tragedy.

This revival of the classic musical, based on Romeo and Juliet, is a thoroughly entertaining piece of theatre. The show has a gritty edge to it and a dark, dramatic and emotional story at its heart. The score, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, includes Tonight, Maria and Somewhere, all of which still pack an emotional punch. The mood is lightened by the mischievous Gee Officer Krupkee, the flamboyant America and the whimsical I Feel Pretty, with the whole of the classic score being played beautifully by the live orchestra and expertly sung by the cast.

Both Louis Maskell, who plays Tony, and Katie Hall as Maria, were in stunning voice, with Hall’s almost operatic qualities complimenting Maskell’s emotion filled vocals. Matthew Hawksley, making his professional debut, stood out from the crowd with his convincing performance as “Action”, comfortably conveying the characters frustration and pent up aggression and Djalenga Scott entertained as the feisty Anita.

But the ensemble pieces were where this show really excelled, with the set, which reflected the back alleys and fire escapes of the inner city, being deceptively versatile, opening up to create a generous dance space for the large and very talented cast to undertake the breath-taking dance routines. By going back to the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, the dance in this production is simply superb to watch – with the sequences assisting in conveying and moving forward the narrative; the standout scenes being the Mambo at the gym, and the Ballet Sequence.

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The lighting was also well designed, utilising colour washes and silhouettes alongside low level highlighting, providing a visually interesting interplay of light and shadow. The balance between vocals and music was fine – but the only quibble in terms of the production was the volume of the speaking in between the musical numbers was a little low, meaning it was sometimes difficult to hear what was being said.

The show has everything to please both established fans and to introduce a new generation of theatre goers to this beautifully crafted piece of theatre. Some may find it heavy going, but for those who would like a little more narrative, character and drama from their musical theatre then this show is the one to see.

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West Side Story is currently at the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 12th July 2014 (http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/west-side-story-14/ ) before continuing on its national tour (http://westsidestorytheshow.co.uk/home ).

About the author: Paul Szabo
In between visits to the theatre, watching films, photography, walking, scuba diving and singing (badly); Paul writes for TheGayUK.