West Side Story in Concert – Bord Gáis Energy Theatre – Review
by Brian Merriman
27 Oct 2021 – 30 Oct 2021
‘West Side Story in Concert’ is a brilliant reminder of the mouth-watering collaboration of Maestro Leonard Bernstein and master lyricist Stephen Sondheim. There was an audible anticipation in the theatre from an audience, long starved of quality live musical theatre performance and this production did not leave them wanting.
Under the interpretative baton of Musical Director, David Hayes, he assembled a band and a cast equal to the many challenges of this work, inspired by the eternal love story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The original show was considered ‘jinxed’ with endless years to bring the production to the stage, shifting the emphasis from the East Side gangs of the Irish and Jews to the West Side conflict of the Americans and Puerto Ricans.
The story was courageous in exposing racism, giving a voice to ‘underprivileged youth’ and rising to the challenge of laying out the consequences of gang violence on young lives. Its message rings true today in a timeless way, but it is the music that remains truly eternal.
Clare Tighe directs and it must be frustrating not to get a crack at the full show, its rich tapestry of complex characters and dramatic storylines. But a concert is just that and with David Hayes as MD, we were in great hands. Sets by John O’Donoghue added to the atmosphere, but I found the moving graphics a distraction, as the brilliant band played Bernstein’s rich arrangements. We don’t need our eyes drawn away by technology when the treasure is already on the stage, and it was in abundance, shining brightly throughout the night. West Side is loved for its orchestrations and dance music as much as for the songs we all know. They don’t need any other enhancement other than the hugely talented band’s performance.
Hayes’s band of fifteen gave us a masterful rendition of this glorious music, with an outstandingly agile percussionist in Nick Bailey, who never missed a moment. ‘West Side’ is a challenge to stage because where do you find a cast who can dance the exhausting and passionate Latin and balletic score, who can act and also sing live, during and after high powered dance routines?
This cast is a cast of singers who did the delicious score more than justice. There was some fresh interpretation and phrasing, especially from Jamie Muscato’s suave and smooth Tony. He had a fresh, often staccato phrasing, blended with a mixture of croon and swing styles and then he could effortlessly soar into a glorious legato head voice that could sustain a perfect note forever. It was bliss.
19 year old, Leah Barniville’s blonde Maria oozed charm and innocence. Inclined to drop her voice in Act One, her stunning duet with Anita (Clare Ivory) was a showstopper in Act Two that defied her youth for its maturity. Ivory is a seasoned performer and drew on all of that to deliver everything expected of Anita, with fire, passion and great vocals. Brian Gilligan (Riff) and Nassim Missaoui (Bernardo) were vocally in top form, and the casting of Johnny Ward as Action was perfect.
Clare Tighe put as strong a director’s stamp on the presentation as a concert version allowed. She somewhat favoured off centre staging of key numbers like ‘One Hand One Heart’ done in profile, which jarred a little. Her real strength, and in the absence of a choreographer, is how she added that sense of dance to the concert staging that made an important impact in bringing the full show to the audience.
Though the piece is timeless, the audience response to the high energy/ slapstick ‘Officer Krupke’ is indicative of the presentation of stereotypes in modern times – it is possibly a piece that would prompt a discussion afterwards when previously it was the comic relief moment in a musical/opera of high drama. The ensemble delivered it with fun, energy and great timing.
The balance in the very talented ‘West Side’ ensemble shifts in a concert version. The Jet’s girls and the Shark boys really miss making as much an impact in a concert, as their great competitive dance numbers and dramatic playing belong in a fully staged production. That being so, the hugely talented Jets delivered in spades and the younger Shark women certainly cut their teeth on this challenging score. The entire ensemble was packed with talent and great vocal quality. They never faltered in their commitment to the performance of the score and thanks to Clare Tighe’s work on continuity between plot and score, they were all completely involved in conveying the drama of what was a musical treat.
‘West Side Story’ is a timeless masterpiece, and in the hands of this talented production team and cast, we were well reminded why this is so.
Duration; Two hours including interval
Run: October 27-30th 2021 at 7.30pm
Musical Director: David Hayes
Director: Clare Tighe
Producer: Stephen Faloon