[Review] West Side Story – Entertaining, But Falls A Little Flat

Reader Rating2 Votes
The Good
Great sets
Classic story
The Bad
Unconvincing cast

When you think of musical theatre a few names that come to mind – Wicked, Chicago and my personal favorite West Side Story. When I heard that Base Entertainment Asia was bringing it to Singapore, I knew I had to catch it.

Now before I get into my review of the show currently playing at the MasterCard Theatre, here’s a quick background for the uninitiated. West Side Story is a “modern” take on Romeo and Juliet, set in early 1950’s New York. Gang life is prominent, and the recent influx of Hispanic immigrants is causing an uproar with the local white community.

In response to the rising tensions, two neighborhood gangs The Jets (an all-White gang) and The Sharks (an all-Hispanic gang) are at war. Amidst all the chaos, madness, and hate, two unlikely souls happen to spot each other from across a crowded room and a whirlwind romance begins… which only makes the turf war more bloody.

Now my favorite parts of the show were the set, costuming and the music. I use the word set because it was literally one modular set which transforms itself into different aspects of a 1950’s New York neighborhood without the addition of any major props or set changes.

The set is a mobile arrangement of steel stairways which are ingeniously placed to create different scenes. With minor adjustments, aided by the use of projections on a giant white screen, these mobile set pieces recreate different areas of a New York neighborhood so well that you feel like you just hopped off of a time-machine-plane and landed in 1950’s New York.

One of the hardest parts of putting together a show from a different era is wardrobe. Making sure that your characters look culturally accurate, while ensuring that they can be spotted from the back rows of a theatre is no small task. The costume designer managed to find a way to dress every character in a way that not only reflected the era, but also their personality. This is best shown in a scene where there’s a community dance and both gangs have arrived.

The flare of the Hispanic culture and its tough machismo exterior is perfectly displayed by the Sharks in contrast to the slightly more “classically formal” and military unison of the Jets. The cultural look and feel of each group is displayed in a non cheesy or degrading way while still highlighting the most noticeable aspects.

While the costumes are spot on, the music is a bit of a double edged sword. Beautifully played by the orchestra and masterfully put together by the composer, the music unfortunately falls victim to the under performance of the cast. West Side Story is known for music that is very difficult to sing, and even harder to perform, due its general pitch, tonal difficulty, as well as the use of accents. Trying to recreate an accent that is foreign to you is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish and only the best singers can emanate this will sing difficult music. Unfortunately the cast fell a bit short in this regard.

The biggest issue for me with this production was the cast. Being a professional dancer for most of my career, I do realize that I can be a bit critical when it comes to choreography. Unfortunately, this time, I was not a fan of the choreography at all. I sat back and gave it another try. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the choreography that I wasn’t a fan of, it was the cast.

In my opinion, the cast wasn’t at the level of technical ability for a production of this caliber. This is most notable in the portrayal of Riff and Maria. Riff is meant to be charismatic, with an inner physical strength that isn’t notable till he utilizes with such fineness that your left in awe of his acrobatic and dance talent. Unfortunately, the actor playing him fell short. During one scene, where Riff does his trademark round off into a flying back flip, the actor in this cast couldn’t even complete a proper cart wheel.

This was the beggining of what would be a pattern of watered down movements and faked choreography. It’s a real shame because one of the best thing about this character is his dancing and acrobatic skills. “Maria” was unfortunately trying to keep a Puerto Rican accent while performing some very challenging songs, causing her to go out of tune and breaking in and out of the occasional Australian(?) accent.

As a whole the cast was quite stiff and was unable to relate to the source material. I don’t really blame them as it’s hard for a Caucasian to understand the struggles of an immigrant minority in a new country. The blame lies with who ever cast the show.

If you have a free date night then this is a good show to watch. It’s got love, humor, amazing sets and is a reinterpretation of a classic love story. If you’re a theatre buff like me who goes for a more spiritual experience, go in with an open mind and slightly lower you expectations or you’ll leave slightly broken-hearted like me.

West Side Story is now playing at the Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands till 30 Sept 2017. Tickets are available here.