Don’t mess with us – that’s the message blasting off the stage as the Jets and Sharks square up to each other in the opening seconds of Musical Youth Company of Oxford’s West Side Story. The violent atmosphere is all the stronger because it’s contained within the claustrophobic brick walls of Libby Holcroft’s atmospheric set design.
A major change to the usual West Side Story is instantly apparent too – it’s not just hate-infested and testosterone-fuelled males who are spoiling for a fight, there are lots of no-nonsense chicks involved as well. Director Edward Blagrove and choreographer Guy Brigg have imaginatively reworked Jerome Robbins’s original conception so that the girls are no longer wallflowers lounging on the sidelines.
Plenty of visual interest and movement has been built into the big numbers, and a huge cast has been cunningly fitted into a small space. Dance execution is precise, well disciplined, and vibrant – this is plainly a production that has been painstakingly rehearsed, then brought to the boil at just the right moment.
The central Romeo and Juliet love story is in the hands of Fred Cambanakis and India Shaw-Smith, playing Tony and Maria. Their relationship in the teeth of violent opposition is touchingly portrayed, with Tony appearing quite shy and understated while Maria is bright and vivacious.
Composer Leonard Bernstein sets some stiff challenges however, and on opening night both performers struggled at times when singing at the edge of their vocal ranges.
In supporting roles, I particularly enjoyed Charlotte Cracknell’s Anita, Andy McIntosh’s Riff, Daniel Richards’s Bernardo, and Charlie Bateman’s slimy, none-too-bright Lt Shrank.
But this was a cast with no weak links. Aided by a sparky, full-size pit band (musical director Nick Planas), MYCO have triumphantly brought off this fresh and exciting take on a 20th-century classic.
Giles Woodforde – Oxford Times, 14th April, 2011