Review: SMuTS West Side Story – ‘Sensuous, humorous and heartbreaking’

Photograph: Malcolm Tam

The main SMuTS production of 2016-17 was West Side Story (directed by Andrew Crouch), a rousing, high-energy production which played to sold out audiences through five performances at the new ACCA. As such a beloved story, productions are often liable to fall short of audience expectations, with many challenging musical numbers, complex cultural depictions, and clear preconceptions going in. The tension is immediately lifted by an energetic-bordering-on-chaotic opening sequence, but it is the first rendition of flagship number “Tonight” that truly reassures the audience that they’re in safe hands.

The show’s male lead and heartthrob, Tony, played by George Martin Marino (a physics student who had never put foot on a stage before this stunning debut) and female lead Maria (Rosa Samuels) captured the authenticity of the fairytale ‘first love’ story, and that vulnerability came through grippingly in their first song together. Marino’s smooth vocal ability comes across from the offset with his solo “Something’s Coming”. Samuels’s acting carries the intimacy of the production throughout, and maintains the tension and emotion of the climactic final scene, in which she is left largely alone to bring the audience to a satisfying conclusion.

Of the musical numbers, the clear audience favourite was “America”, a rousing number which worked especially well courtesy of the all-female cast. Of the four stage versions these journalists have seen, the SMuTS version of “America” was the most engaging, driven by the believable depiction of the various experiences of life as an immigrant in America – in the process giving a full and developed look at the personal experiences of the Puerto Rican Sharks in a way that often gets lost.

The one who really steals the show is Elly Warboys as Anita. Equal parts sensuous, humorous and heart-breaking, she left an impression on the audience every time she entered the stage. With Sorin Prodea as the highly charismatic Bernardo, the couple’s fantastic chemistry brought the Sharks – characters who are often played stoically – to life with their physical presence, despite the sadly few lines they are given together by the script. Chino, while in many productions a character left to fade into the background, was played with masterful comedic timing and emotional nuance by Steffan Chanyaem.

On the other side, the role of Riff, leader of the Jets, is brought to life by Samuel Longville, who brings out the tough yet caring leadership of the character. With a convincing accent throughout, he brought out the masculinity often lost in depictions of Riff, and preserved the unifying stage presence around which the choreography of the Jets hangs together, especially during musical numbers. In the sharply choreographed “Cool” this is brought clearly into focus, as Riff acts as a teacher to the other gang members. Through his magnetic presence, it is Riff who moves the story along and brings a real comradeship to the Jets.

Fellow Jets had some excellent moments, too – largely brought out in “Gee, Officer Krupke”, another crowd favourite. Particular standouts were Charlie Passalacqua’s A-Rab, who led the number, and Isabella Thorpe-Woods’s Diesel, who was an excellent example of the successful gender-swapping of several roles.

It is not just the younger characters who stand out, with a particularly memorable turn from William jf Walker as Doc, in his first foray into the world of musical theatre. Bringing stage presence and weighty charisma, it’s on his intervention that the plot takes its tragic turn, and he brings the audience along with that tonal shift.

The staging was minimalist but effective and allowed space for the large-scale dance numbers full scope to leave their impression on the audience. Choreographers Erin Knox-Macaulay and Emily Davies-Hawes did an impressive job orchestrating a dance-heavy show with a large cast, including many different styles of dance – all of which were performed with great skill. Out of many impactful musical numbers, our favourite moment in the production was key musical number “Somewhere”, which involved an impressive choral arrangement combined with the full orchestra as live accompaniment in a dream sequence which sent a chill up the spine of every member of the audience.

An incredibly enjoyable performance, we can only hope for another show like this from the Sussex Musical Theatre Society. We are left with the knowledge that with SMuTS, even “pale, blond engineering students” (Ronan Martin) can be Puerto Rican gang members on the stage.

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