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Relevant youth version of hit musical
To mark its 120th birthday, Birmingham Hippodrome has staged its first-ever home-grown youth production with iconic musical West Side Story - but could the difficult songs be a stretch too far for an amateur cast?
Despite many of them having little experience on such a large stage, these Jets and Sharks showed a confidence from the start that belied their age with well-timed, stylised group dance routines on a minimalistic set that was full of atmosphere.
Using the auditorium aisles was a nice touch to introduce the different gangs to stage. It really created an energy and buzz, resembling the loudness and vibe of New York's streets where this is set.
There's a great chemistry between Tony and Maria on stage
I had wondered if doing such a well-loved show as West Side Story with extremely difficult songs vocally like Maria, Tonight and A Boy Like That would be too much of a challenge for a youth project. Thanks to an incredibly impressive cast, it actually turned out to be a very clever move by The Hippodrome.
Rival inner-city gangs in West Side Story have never seemed more real and relevant than using young people, some as young as 14, who would have been a similar age to the "hoodlums" in this tragic tale. As in Romeo and Juliet, of which West Side Story is based, the characters were all angst-ridden teenagers.
It makes the passion of first love, the bubbling undercurrent of anger and resentment and the dysfunctional lives they sing about in Gee, Officer Krupke all the more believable. In fact, Gee, Officer Krupke got the biggest cheer of the whole performance too for a fantastic rendition by the animated Jets members.
For those unaware of the story, it is about rival young gangs of Americans (The Jets) and Puerto Rican immigrants (The Sharks) in 1950's New York who are fighting over their pride and turf. When Tony from the Jets falls for Maria, the younger sister of The Sharks' leader Barnardo, it leads to a series of tragic events.
It's the quality of the performances that really shine bright, especially the leads playing star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria - 16-year-old Alex Cook and Kamilla Fernandes, 18.
The beautiful tone of their voices demand attention and they handle the songs masterfully, while their chemistry adds to the emotional impact of the ongoing drama.
Matthew Pandya, 18, is probably the strongest all-round performer on stage as Jets leader Riff. He has a particularly natural ease on stage and it's hard to believe he's not a professional actor.
Ruby Hewitt, 19, also has a strong voice and charming charisma as Anita while Gibsa Bah, 18, portrayed an intimidating leader of the Sharks, Barnardo, and excelled on the dancing front.
Director Matt Hawksworth and a small professional creative team have stripped back the stage to use the bare minimum of props. Instead, lighting and the use of space by the young cast creates a charged atmosphere when busy and a romantic ambience when left to just Tony and Maria.
The huge song and dance routine for There's A Place For Us is well crafted and choreographed, as is the final scene that brings a lump to the throat.
Fiona Allan, Birmingham Hippodrome Artistic Director and Chief Executive, when talking about the choice for this show had said that West Side Story remained just as relevant now as when it was first written, holding many parallels with everyday lives.
There are obvious parallels to the recent wave of gang stabbings in London and Birmingham Hippodrome has hit upon an extremely relevant new version by making it all about the younger generation.
West Side Story got a well-deserved standing ovation on its opening night and I've no doubt it will continue to do so through its run. It's a fine piece of theatre that highlights what emerging talent there is in and around Birmingham. It's as close to professional as you can get. Catch it while you can.
The full cast included:
The Jets: Luke Rossiter (14), Harvey Zafino (16), Brook Jenkins (14), Diarmuid Gaffney (17), Hugo Montgomery (19), Kane Taylor (17), Alan Lewis (21) and Harry Chamberlain (16), Maisie Lodge (16), Ella Kenrick (24), Olivia Caddick (14), Ebony Roy-Palmer (17), Tumba Katanda (18), Bethan Day (21), Rhiannon Lee Street (18), Evie-May Harding (17) and Nancy Ling (22).
The Sharks: Jaye Fordham (20), Demi Walton (16), Jasmine Bromfield (17), Justine Matthews (22), Isabella Polidori (16), Ashleigh Savage (17), Alexandra Whitehead (25) and Elle Carter-Knowles (21), Oliver Cowlishaw (20), Aadil Din (17), Harry Cooke (14), Tom Silverton (25), Adam Robinson (17), Adam Newton (17), Alexander Wooliscroft (25) and Kai-Daniel Augustin (17).
Four Birmingham Hippodrome staff members started in adult character roles: Benjamin Jones from Visitor Services was Gladhand, Marketing Officer Chris Cooper was Lieutenant Schrank, Visitor Services Administrator Nicola Entwistle played Officer Krupke and Hippodrome Young Poet Hannah Swingler played Doc.