tony stabbed

Maria (Kamilla Fernandes) grieves over the body of Tony (Alex Cook) with Officer Krupke (Nicola Entwistle, left), Lieutenant Schrank (Chris Cooper) and Doc (Hannah Swingler) looking on with the Jets and Sharks behind. Pictures: Simon Hadley

West Side Story

Birmingham Hippodrome


Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – the second choice lyricist, by the way, who was on his Broadway debut -and book by Arthur Laurents, all from an original idea by William Shakespeare – the elements for one of, if not the greatest musical of all time.

It is a tale of rival factions, in the original the Montagues and the Capulets in 14th century fair Verona, here it is the Puerto Rican street gang, The Sharks, new immigrants threatening the turf of the Polish American Jets in 1950’s New York’s poor Upper West Side. For “our pair of star cross’d lovers” Romeo and Juliet, read Tony and Maria.

As for Tony . . . the performance of 16-year-old Alex Cook in the part is the icing on the cake for this inaugural Birmingham Hippodrome youth production. He plays the former Jet who has left the gang and now works as a delivery boy for Doc’s drugstore to perfection.

The Birmingham Ormiston Academy student is a star in the making. He looks comfortable on stage with an easy personable presence and has a wonderful trained tenor voice which can hit high and low notes with ease. He has commendable voice control whether singing softly or at full power and soft, loud, high, low you can hear every word.

Alex, from Kingswinford, has two of the show’s iconic numbers, Maria and Tonight, both of which require a fair amount of emotion and vocal control, nailing both in showstopping moments and he has some wonderful duets with Kamilla Fernandes’ Maria.

At 16 he is still learning his craft and when you consider tenor voices usually mature around mid to late 20s, then logically, there is much more to come from a young man who already has the attributes needed to succeed in this most precarious and fickle of professions. All he needs is the theatre gods to smile down on him.

tony and anita

Tonight: Maria and Tony in West Side Story's balcony scene

Certainly, he is one to look out for, as indeed is Fernandes as Maria, who has just finished her A levels at Coventry’s Caludon Castle School. She has a delightful, clear, soprano voice, again showing training, and like Cook she can act as well as she can sing.

She has her moments with the bittersweet, emotive I have a Love, in her duet of despair with Anita singing her angry A Boy Like That after Bernardo, Maria’s brother and Anita’s boyfriend, is killed by Tony, but there are happier times such as her lively I feel Pretty.

Fine voices don’t always blend but Maria and Tony combine quite beautifully with Tonight and One Hand, One Heart.

The pair are worth a couple of stars on their own, with a third added by Ruby Hewitt, from Harborne, as Anita, the confident Puerto Rican immigrant out to make a life for herself in America. Sadly, the song, or at least its litany of jokes got a little lost in an ensemble piece but the fun and clever routines were there,

Anita is the sure one, not letting boyfriend Bernado, leader of the Sharks, get away with too much, she appears hard but breaks down after the rumble, the gang fight which Tony tries to stop but which ends with Bernado killing Riff, leader of the Jets and Tony retaliating in anger, killing Bernado.

When the news breaks Anita launches into the bitter A Boy Like That, telling Maria Tony was one of them and she should stick to her own kind. Maria counters with I have a love which brings them both together in one of the most moving moments of the production.

The pair both have suffered loss but still the violence continues. Anita tries to deliver a message from Maria to Tony but the hatred and racism of the Jets spills over into sexual assault and in anger and shame she gives the wrong message, that Maria is dead, a message that fate decides will get Tony killed.

There is good support from Gibsa Bah, from Great Barr, as the strutting, arrogant Bernardo, who doesn’t get a song, and his Jets' counterpart Matthew Pandya, from Coventry, Riff who does, with a finger-snapping Cool as he tells his gang to stay calm as they wait for a war council to challenge the Sharks to a rumble, a fight.


Gibsa Bah as Sharks' leader Barnardo and Ruby Hewitt as his girlfriend Anita

The Jets also give us a fine Gee, Officer Krupke, milking every laugh out of the comic song as they lampoon Krupke, the legal system and all the adults who don’t understand them. In 1957, at the show’s opening, the song, inserted to lighten the mood after the double murder, had political undertones, in a society with a disenfranchised, disillusioned youth, poverty and social deprivation. Sadly 60 years on the undertones are still there.

There are other good performances such as from Olivia Allen from Harborne is the girl wannabe gang member and tomboy Anybodys, the name suggesting more of a reputation, while Carter Smith, from Yardley, another 16-year-old is Barnardo's brooding lieutenant, Chino.

The ensemble are excellent, with no one on stage to make up numbers. Everyone is acting whether jostling, arguing, laughing – it didn’t matter, everyone was doing something – as well as acting as scene shifters. Choral singing was good as was the dancing which is down to director and choreographer Matt Hawksworth, The dancing avoided the routine and simple, as perhaps it had to when the original was by the legendary Jerome Robbins and had blown apart the rules for musical theatre.

It had to be hard and gritty and Hawksworth managed that although at times the stage was a little crowed with its cast of 40, but well controlled all the same, with a clever use of the aisles to spread the load..

Al Parkinson’s design was simple and flexible to give us bedrooms, Doc’s, a bridal shop and the disputed turf, while Rachel Baynton’s costume design had a 1950’s feel, although perhaps more could have been done to distinguish Sharks and Jets, the homogeny made some of the gang scenes a little confusing at times.

 And if we are being picky, for me the start didn’t work with a group of youngsters just hanging around chatting, playing with a basketball or whatever for a few minutes as the audience enter until a gang fight erupts, looking for all the world like a playground dispute.


The moment of madness as peacemaker Tony becomes killer and stabs Bernardo with

 Carter Smith's Chino looking on 

Bernstein’s brilliant prologue starts as no more than a hint of brewing trouble growing to a crescendo of drama and ferocity, it is an opening, stark, harsh and brutal, which changed the face of musical theatre. It sets the scene for racial tension, for gang fights and violence. This opening, well worked as it was, just didn’t manage that for me, it lost the sense of danger and the bleak landscape these kids were living in.

That being said, the ballet sequence in Act 2, I have never felt worked and in many productions it sticks out a bit like a heavenly sore thumb, but at least here Hawksworth has tried to give it some substance and relevance to the story, so full marks for that, and full marks too for Bethan Day as the Jets’ Betty, who sang Somewhere quite beautifully.

Adults take the adult parts with Hannah Swingler as the despairing drugstore owner Doc and Nicola Entwistle as the regularly outwitted Officer Krupke, both roles traditionally played by men, while comedian and writer Benjamin Black tries to jolly things along, lets all be friends, as Glad Hand, the enthusiast outreach worker in charge of the dance where Tony meets Maria – the catalyst for the unfolding drama.

Meanswhile, trying to keep a lid on things is the racist, careworn, cynical police lieutenant, Schrank.

The brilliant score of West Side Story is complex, part symphonic, part jazz, part operatic, part ballet, part choral – almost Bernstein’s career in a nutshell – and it is played with power and precision by the 19 piece orchestra of musicians from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire under musical director and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal conductor Paul Murphy.

The performance licence demands a big orchestra and it shows in the depth, colour and range of sound.

This is the first youth production at the Hippodrome, becoming part of its 120th anniversary celebrations, and is something Chief Executive Fiona Allan has been working on since she arrived in 2015. It marks a second first this year after the Hippodrome’s first home grown production – with The Curve Leicester – The Color Purple.

A thousand youngsters auditioned for roles and some of the cast are experienced performers, while for some it is the first time on stage – not that you would ever know it.

They bring a youthful exuberance and enthusiasm to the stage, and a sheer joy at being there. After all this is a musical, which at its essence, is about teenage love, angst and gang rivalry, spilling over into violence and stabbings – another echo resonating again sixty years on. They brought their characters to life so that we cared about them and felt for them when it all went wrong

It is my favourite musical - and I have no greater praise than to say the young cast did it proud. To 31-08-19

Roger Clarke


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