Elliot Gooch, as Tony and Grace Whyte as Maria trapped in a nightmare after the fateful knife fight.

West Side Story

Stage Experience

The New Alexandra Theatre


Stage Experience is one of the highlights of the theatrical year – a chance to see the stars of the future in a show brimming with youthful passion, talent and enthusiasm.

And when the production is West Side Story, the finest musical of them all as far as I am concerned, there is every chance for the young stars to shine.

West Side Story: the best musical ever - taken from the Alex's 2014 touring production

We all know that logic and the theatrical gods dictate that luck is as big a player as talent in a career where some 90 per cent of actors are “resting” at any one time, but every year Stage Experience throws up names worth looking out for in the future.

Shining brightest this year is Stourbridge’s King Edward VI College A level student Grace Whyte playing Maria. She shows convincing innocence and anguish in equal measure in her acting, and, what a voice. She has a clear as a bell soprano, with a distinct vibrato, good range and tone, a voice which has yet to reach maturity. It is a voice well suited to either opera or musical theatre – her I feel Pretty is a delight.

Elliot Gooch, aged 19, from Herefordshire, playing Tony is an excellent foil for her and their voices go well together in duets such as One Hand One Heart and Tonight. He has a look of a young Danny Kaye and an easy presence on stage as the reformed gang member hoping to bring some sense and reason to the macho gang posturing of the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks.

The star cross'd lovers, Tony and Maria 

He has a good tenor voice which slips easily into a clear falsetto when he is asked to in solos such as Something’s Coming and the iconic Maria. They are our Romeo and Juliet in this resetting of the tale among New York’s street gangs.

Maria is aided in the Shark’s sisterhood by Leah Vassell as Anita. Leah has just finished GCSE’s at Rugby High School for girls and next term heads for Birmingham Ormiston Academy (BOA) to study musical theatre, a course for which she is well suited with a powerful voice and confident stage presence, remarkable in one so young.

Her duet with Grace, as Maria, A boy Like That and I have a Love, sung after Tony has killed Bernardo, who is Maria’s brother and Anita’s fiancée. The anger, despair and horror all come out in song in an emotional performance. But it is not just emotion. Leah gives the upbeat America vibrant life bringing out the fun and irony in the song.

Jordan Ricketts, who was Danny in last year’s production of Grease, plays Riff, the leader of the Jets with some style and a fine voice on numbers such as Cool while Javier Aguilera adds a sense of Latin danger to the mix as the strutting Bernardo with Christopher Rutter as his right hand man Chino, who is also his chosen one for Maria.


Leah Vassell as Anita

Difficult roles for youngsters are Doc, the drug store owner, who should be the elderly, wise old head, and Jonah Sercombe, who is just 15 and a pupil at BOA does a fine job acting way beyond his years while Christopher Dover, a member of The Crescent Theatre company, adds on the years as Shrank, the racist, hard-nosed, care-worn Lt. Schrank.

Then there is Glad Hand, played by Alfie Mitcham, in his fifth Stage Experience, the inept and oh so “square” (yes, we used to say that) social director at the gym dance in a lovely cameo comedy role. 

There is excellent support from the gang of boys and girls who make up the Jets and Sharks, too many to mention with a cast of 110, along with 14 youngsters working as technicians, and director Pollyann Tanner, in her 15th Stage Experience, does her always excellent job to control so many people on stage without it looking like the first day of a Harrod’s sale.

Giving so many people a chance to be part of a production though, does have its drawbacks; the gym dance, for example, was a bit of a crush at times, while in the quartet singing of Tonight towards the end of Act 1, we see a huge chorus arrive, with one side Jets, one side Sharks, and they dominate the stage with the sound virtually drowning out poor Maria singing Tonight on her balcony and Anita with her bittersweet tonight song – a minor niggle perhaps but detracting from the musical balance of different songs, different hopes and agendas, which should be all countering and combining.


Jordan Ricketts as Riff leading his Jets street gang

Unheralded in the programme, incidentally, is Priya Appleby who sings Somewhere quite beautifully in the Act II ballet dream sequence - a section, I must be honest, which I have never seen as sitting easily with the gang battles either side, but there you go – and then she pops up again at the end to sing Tonight as a sort of encore finale. She has a lovely voice, one you would like to hear more of.

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and all from an original idea by William Shakespeare, the score has some of the most loved, most recognisable and most widely covered songs in musical theatre.

The music is what drives West Side Story along and licensing conditions for the show demand a big orchestra and here, 19 strong under Musical Director Chris Newton, there is a big sound to do justice to the expansive, symphonic score.

Joe Green’s sound coped well with the big cast and Colin Wood’s lighting was excellent at conveying mood and highlighting dramatic moments while Tanner, who is also choreogrpher, used the simple, flexible stark set well to move things along at a good pace.

We start off with the harsh, stark prologue when when chorographed violent clashes between the gangs set the scene then the rumble, the fight for bragging and street rights which goes tragically wrong, with knives instead of swords for the modern day Montagues and Capulets.

Tanner brings a wealth of experience to the stage and manages to bring the cast up to near professional standard in the two weeks they have had for rehearsals. If nothing else it will have given the youngsters a taste of what life in a professional theatre is like with more sweat than glamour..

But for now their passion, enthusiasm and no small amount of talent shine through in what is another Stage Experience hit show. To 26-08-17

Roger Clarke


Stage Experience, which started in 2003, gives youngsters from across the region the chance to take part in a production with professional direction, crew and orchestra, working to a professional timetable of just two week's rehearsal. More than 1750 youngers have taken part with previous members including comedian Joe Lycett and Liam Doyle who has landed leading roles in West End shows.

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