At their worst, musicals can seem horribly artificial. The sudden dance routines and bursting into song can feel false and forced. In the Royal Exchange’s production of West Side Story, however, all aspects of the production are successfully tailored to fit the narrative. The different theatrical elements – singing, acting, choreography, orchestration and design – work together cohesively as the tragedy unfolds.

West Side Story first opened on Broadway in 1957 and tells the story of Tony (played here by Andy Coxon) and Maria (Gabriela Garcia) who fall in love despite being linked to rival Manhattan gangs – the American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks.

Coxon’s Tony is likeable and charming, and Garcia plays Maria with youthful enthusiasm (though the operatic style of her singing voice does seem at odds with this persona). Together they are convincing as the ill-starred couple, interacting comfortably and harmonising well.

Music is sensitively matched to mood throughout the production and Jason Carr’s live band produce an incredible sound. The musical direction (by Mark Aspinall) is timed to perfection, with the level of control over volume and tone becoming especially apparent in Coxon’s exquisite rendition of ‘Maria’.

Aletta Collins’ new choreography is subtle and feels like a natural reflection of the power dynamics on stage – from the tentative first dance between Tony and Maria to the undercurrent of aggression as the gangs size each other up. Michael Duke, as Jet leader Riff, is particularly good at using movement to show his status and influence over others. Female friendships are also portrayed effectively through dance; the warmth and closeness between Maria and best friend, Anita (Jocasta Almgill) is evident through their interactions.

Designer Anna Fleischle presents an abstract version of New York through a minimalist, monochrome set. Frames are used at different levels to fully utilise the shape of the Royal Exchange’s pod. There are nods to the street furniture of the city and to the fire escapes adorning Manhattan’s apartment blocks. Colour is injected through Lee Curran’s lighting design, such as the soft, pinky red that reflects both romantic fervour and the fierce passion that leads to bloodshed.

For outgoing artistic director Sarah Frankcom, West Side Story marks her first time directing a musical. What Frankcom does have, though, is years of experience directing plays and bringing fresh approaches to theatre productions. It is arguably her concern with telling the story underneath the finger clicks and swirling skirts that makes this version of West Side Story so compelling.

West Side Story is at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 25th May 2019.

Photo by Richard Davenport

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