The day before I see the Royal Exchange Theatre’s new production of West Side Story, the kids are out on the streets. In cities around the world, children are striking for a future. For the generations who have passed on a polluted world to finally start cleaning up after ourselves. For governments to take urgent climate action. For peace and quiet and open air.
Sure, West Side Story is about doomed love and gang violence and racial tensions. But it’s also about the kind of world handed down to young people and the options they have for inhabiting it. In Sarah Frankcom’s stripped-back, in-the-round production, this is clearer than ever. When Doc tells the Jets that they make the world lousy, the reply shoots back fast and bitter: “that’s the way we found it”. If all people have is a dirty strip of street, they’ll fight tooth and nail to protect it.
As musicals go, this West Side Story is minimal, almost stark. In the Royal Exchange’s auditorium, the stage becomes a bullring or a cock-fighting pit, in which the Sharks and the Jets pace around one another like caged animals. The white scaffolding of Anna Fleischle’s set, lightly suggesting New York’s balconies and fire escapes, is both playground and prison. Any hint of glamour is scrubbed away, replaced with the rough monochrome of the streets.
The approach makes the show feel fresh without trampling all over Jerome Robbins’ original (and barely tampered with, until now) staging. Aletta Collins’ choreography is restrained at first, resisting the iconic jumps and kicks of the “Prologue”, before bursting into full-blooded life in “The Dance at the Gym”. The shapes of Robbins’ choreography are there in outline, with added gestures – a turn of a foot here, a flick of a wrist there – and a new intimacy. Some set pieces, like “America”, feel a little deprived. But in numbers like “Cool”, as well as in the pivotal gym scenes, the choreography fizzes with contained passion and aggression.
In Jason Carr’s new orchestrations, Leonard Bernstein’s music is as breathtaking as ever, stabbing one moment and soaring the next. For once, the cliché feels justified – Bernstein’s score does actually steal your breath away, in sharp gasps and heavy sighs. And again, Frankcom’s production finds something novel in these well-known songs. As the besotted Tony and Maria, Andy Coxon and Gabriela García bring a sweet yet febrile passion to “Tonight”, making love itself seem newly minted. “Somewhere”, meanwhile, is less a dream of escape for the star-crossed lovers and more a moving plea for an entire generation, performed by the whole (brilliant) ensemble. Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living.
As a theatre, the Exchange seems to have an acute sense of how popular classics might speak to the moment of their revival. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, staged in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombings, movingly suggested the ways in which a community defines itself. With actors of colour playing Willy and his sons, the theatre’s production of Death of a Salesman brought a new dimension to Arthur Miller’s critique of the American dream. And now, West Side Story feels like it has a lot to say to a world in which young people are inheriting a lousy legacy and foreigners continue to be viciously scapegoated. Today – perhaps more than ever – we still need to find a new way of living.
West Side Story plays at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 25 May. More info here.