Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

jest and sharks top

West Side Story

Sutton Arts Theatre


COULD it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming, something good . . . and it has  arrived in triumphal style in Sutton Coldfield.

A huge cast and an orchestra bigger than most professional touring musicals can muster, took on perhaps the most iconic and difficult musical in the theatrical repertoire, and won handsomely.

This was a quality production from start to finish with the 28 youngsters making up the Puerto Rican Sharks and Polish-American Jets so convincing as 1960’s New York gangs in a turf war that you would hardly have been surprised had fights been breaking out backstage.

As with all musicals West Side Story needs strong leads, particularly as every song is so well known, and here Tony and Maria are both superb. George Stuart has a fine voice with a good range, particularly in the high registers, and is believable as the ex-Jet who has grown out of gangs and even has a job, as a delivery boy for Doc’s drug store.

Phebe Jackson as Maria not only manages Tony and Mariaa convincing Spanish accent but has a lovely, clear soprano voice hitting the high notes with ease. Their duets in Somewhere, Tonight and One Hand, One Heart are a delight.

Leader of the Jets is Riff, all strutting and bravado from Maison Kelley, who takes on Riff’s macho songs such as the Jet Song with a suitable swagger and leads his gang in the light-hearted Gee, Officer Krupke scene.

George Stuart as Tony and Phebe Jackson as Maria in the balcony scene

Richard Haines as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, looks the part, tall and brooding. The Sharks' men don’t get to do any singing apart from chorus numbers at the dance and during the dream ballet sequence but Haines does the angry young man bit beautifully and his fateful fight with Riff has a look of mutual hatred and authenticity about it, which, unless they were sorting it out in the car park afterwards, was good acting.

Sarah Haines as the flighty Anita, Bernardo’s girl, puts her heart and soul into America, one of several excellent dance numbers in the show.

But she really comes into her own in the bitter duet with Maria as we head for the inevitable, heart-rending conclusion. There is no happy ending in this one.

She really does spit out the words of A boy Like That before being overtaken and finally joining in the sad duet of resignation, I have a love.

There is good support from James Mateo-Salt as Action who tries to keep the Jets together and Cool after the fateful fight and from Jacob Kholi as Chino, the boy Bernardo has chosen to marry Maria, along with Emily Armstrong as Anybody’s, the tomboy wannabe gang member. And among the four adults in the cast Barrie Atchison is a believable, despairing Doc trying to keep the peace.

And then there is the excellent chorus of the rest of the gang members and their girls who being enormous vibrancy and life to the stage in the dance and chorus numbers.

That they managed avoiding bumping into each other - even using the full Sutton Arts stage there is not a lot of room for 28 bodies - must be down to choreographer Anna Forster. West Side Story demands a lot of dance numbers which have to look good if the show is to succeed and she has drilled her charges well. The dancing was slick, more complex and difficult than you expect from non-professional dancers and even the obligatory dream ballet sequence in the second act worked as well as you could hope for. Even in the original production that scene never seemed to quite sit comfortably with the rest, but at least Forster gave it some meaning.

It is rare in amateur shows for dancing to be memorable, at least for the right reasons, but here it played its full part in an enjoyable show.

West Side Story is also about the music, and performance licence conditions dictate the minimum size of orchestra which meant if you wantejetsd an audience then there was no room for them and 10 musicians and instruments under musical director and conductor Tom Brookes in the same auditorium.

Once you're a Jet, you're always a Jet, Riff, played by Maison Kelley tells us

So the orchestra were banished to the tea room next door and the sound relayed, which is not ideal, but needs must, and not only did it work but they produced a very professional performance of what is a very familiar Bernstein score. Not only that but I understand opening night was the first performance with the full orchestra – if you hadn’t been told you would never have known.

The set was simple, a collection of flats designed by John Islip with artwork of 1960’s New York streets from Mark Nattras, with hints of smoke drifting across when needed, while David Ashton and Richard Pardoe-Williams have done a fine job with the lighting design to create both atmosphere and incorporate travel spots.

There were a few minor issues with sound on the opening night, hardly surprising with so many radio mikes on stage and a first run through with an orchestra next door, but a few tweaks will no doubt solve those for the rest of the run.

Scene changes, incidentally, were fast and carried out with great efficiency by the cast

Director Dexter Whitehead, who also took on the role of racist detective Schrank, has done a wonderful job of squeezing this big cast, all singing, all dancing musical on to a small stage and his young cast have rewarded him with some cracking performances which left the audience caring about their characters.

Even professionally productions of West Side Story do not come around too often, a touring version was at The New Alexandra Theatre last spring and there was a previous tour in 2000, while amateur productions are as rare as hen’s teeth, so it is a matter of catch it while you can - and if you catch this one you won’t be disappointed.

When you see your favourite musical taken on by an amateur company, especially one with no recent history of musicals, then you enter the auditorium with a mix of interest and trepidation to see what they have done with it – and they have done it proud. It runs to Saturday, June 20.

Roger Clarke


Is West Side Story the best musical ever?

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