REVIEW: West Side Story – A professional & emotional production showcasing the bright stars of the future

Kamilla Fernandes, Matthew Pandya, Alex Cooke, Olivia Allen, Gibsa Bah, Ruby Hewitt and Carter Smith Photo Credit: Olivia Ahmadi

Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome

Performance Date: 29 August 2019

Reviewer: Sophie Mills

Star Rating: ★★★★

To mark its 120th birthday, Birmingham Hippodrome has invited 40 of the region’s most talented young performers to celebrate one of the greatest love stories ever brought to the stage. West Side Story, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, is Birmingham Hippodrome’s first home-grown youth production.

Still delighting audiences worldwide more than 60 years since its Broadway debut, West Side Story takes the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers and sets it against the background of 1950s New York City. Two youngsters from rival New York gangs are swept off their feet whilst their nearest and dearest fight in a turf war for the ages.

West Side Story is an ambitious production from the Hippodrome, traditionally being a receiving house. With many of the young actors never having been on stage before, the creative team tackle not only the Sondheim classics but intensive choreography and multiple scenes of stage combat. Nevertheless, Matt Hawksworth double handing the job as Director and Choreographer for this production has truly brought the story to life.

In addition to the high stakes of the performance itself, West Side Story tackles sensitive themes such as gang violence, racism, and knife crime. Whilst initially it appears that the content of West Side Story may be a little adult for its young ensemble, with cast members as young as 14 making an appearance, perhaps it isn’t as ‘out there’ as it first seems. It’s difficult to go more than a week without hearing about gun violence in America or a stabbing in the UK. Teens are exposed to the themes running through this much-loved musical every day, and this cast is skilled in their play of these difficult scenes for a willing audience.

Alex Cook and Kamilla Fernandes lead the cast in the roles of Tony and Maria respectively in performances that even the most accomplished of actors would be proud of. These young lovers were cast from a roster of 1000 young actors in the Midlands, and it’s likely that this won’t be the last time their names are credited alongside many well-known roles in years to come.

The show’s stand out number by a country mile is Cook’s rendition of ‘Maria’ which brings the house down in the first act – a true show-stealer. His strong tenor and supreme breath control at just 16 years old is the perfect contrast to Fernandes’ beautiful soprano and brings gorgeous harmonies to the musical from the moment they meet. Amid the rich vocals, Fernandes seamlessly moves from the innocent to the angry and hurt, while still keeping a youthful play on the role.

The frivolity of ‘America’, led by Ruby Hewitt’s Anita and Jaye Fordham’s Rosalia, is fun although the choreography is fairly choppy and feels rushed. Less skirt swishing and more real dancing would round the scene off nicely as opposed to leaving something to be desired. Throughout the performance, Hewitt brings maturity to the role of Anita far beyond her years. Her repartee with Fernandes is exquisite for such young actresses, with both their vulnerabilities front and centre for the audience to see.

An honourable mention goes to the Jets’ ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ for some light-hearted entertainment following the rumble at the end of act one. Brook Jenkins truly shines in this scene, and the well-loved ‘krup you’ receives a giggle from the audience in what would otherwise be a very dark second act.

For its first youth production, Birmingham Hippodrome does a magnificent job. Covering difficult content, challenging a Sondheim songbook and Bernstein music, and working in choreography for 40 actors, the cast and creative team treat the audience to a fantastic couple of hours of escapism. It’s emotional, and a definite treat for any theatre-goer ready to see the bright stars of the future in action.

The future of theatre hasn’t anything to worry about – the Midlands have got it covered.

Runs until: 31st August 2019

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