60 years is a long time for a musical to still go strong, but there’s a timeless charm to West Side Story that keep audiences coming back each and every time for another dose of Tony and Maria’s epic love story.

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Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story shifts the setting to the Upper West Side of New York City, where two rival immigrant gangs are engaged in a fierce turf war. But amidst the hate, love is blooming between a young member from each gang. Can love conquer all and put an end to this fighting once and for all?

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Director/choreographer Joey McKneely has crafted a commendable show that’s just as easy to fall in love with as its protagonists do with each other. Utilizing the original choreography from Jerome Robbins, the dance moves remain slick and tasteful, finely balancing sexy with skilful in mass scenes like “Dance at the Gym” or the well-paced, hypnotically rhythmic “Cool”. Smaller, energetic numbers like crowd pleaser “America” were fun to watch as the Sharks girls teased each other while ruffling their skirts, while the choreographed fight scenes, portrayed more as dance than actual fighting, exuded a theatricality that oozed with testosterone. Matching some of the most diverse genres of dance from ballet to salsa, there was almost always something to keep audiences rapt with attention to all the action onstage.

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One of our favourite scenes was no doubt “Somewhere” in the second act, where Tony and Maria imagined an ideal world where the Jets and Sharks were no longer at war. The jump to a more fantastic setting allowed for the choreography to take new risks and steer away from the bounds of naturalism, as cast members freely jumped through the air, and it was interesting to see the Jets and Sharks working together to create a solid moment that went perfectly with Kelsey Elisabeth Holley’s soothing, soaring voice as Consuelo.

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Just as in the original Romeo and Juliet, it can be a little difficult to believe and invest in the head over heels relationship of two teenagers who meet at a dance and begin a whirlwind romance. Although a little forced at first, leads Marc Koeck as Tony and Natalie Ballenger as Maria manage to quickly find their footing in “Tonight”, and later on, their marriage fantasy one we can genuinely root for in “Tonight (Quintet and Chorus)”, as their voices harmonize and sync, their chemistry cementing a believable romance onstage. This only gets stronger in Act 2, as the emotions running high and the thrill of young love only escalates their relationship further, their spark bursting into the flames of passion, making their eventual demise incredibly painful. Natalie Ballenger in particular, brings a maturity to Maria in the final moments of West Side Story, and there is a visible transformation from her giddy turn in “I Feel Pretty” to her tortured sobbing over Tony’s death.

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Just as the lovers’ relationship escalates in Act 2, so does the rest of the plot, as it reaches a frenzied fever pitch with the double tragedy at the end of Act 1. Keely Beirne, as Maria’s fiesty confidante Anita, was one of the absolute standouts as she brought her character to life with her fiery energy, dialling up the sass and flirtatiousness in Act 1, while the death of Bernardo brings a new weight to her character in Act 2, which she handles sensitively, and her spiteful betrayal of Maria understandable.

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Even amidst the darkness that peers in at the edges of the second act, there’s still room for a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour that pokes fun at class politics in “Gee, Officer Krupke”. Ryan P. Cyr as A-Rab and Daniel Russell as Baby John are a delight to watch as they make fun of the bumbling policeman before they join the rest of the Jets in offering pointed commentary of the perception of their families in a surprisingly light-hearted number that reveals hard truths.

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Paul Gallis’ set design is appropriately imposing, the balconies and back alleys bringing all the feel of a grimy New York Upper West Side while towering above the cast, while various black and white projections of New York are used to add depth to the backdrop. One cannot help but feel uneasy watching the scenes, knowing that something is bound to happen on these dangerous streets. Peter Halbsgut’s lighting design is also top notch, and adds the appropriate dramatic flair to each and every scene, spotlighting Tony and Maria in their more intimate moments, or using a bold, dramatic red screen to emphasise the mood of the number. Prior to the Rumble at the end of Act 1, the lights flashed between various smaller groups of Jets and Sharks plotting against each other, playing up the feeling of unease and drama, a clandestine war that we as a middle class audience are perhaps, not privy to in our day to day lives.

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Leonard Bernstein’s soundtrack holds up wonderfully even today, and esteemed music director and West Side Story veteran Donald Chan led the orchestra seamlessly, and it was interesting to watch how certain sounds were timed to perfection to match the cast’s movements on stage, such when a Jet turns his head for added dramatic effect, or nimbly switching from one genre to another to suit each scene, able to go from dreamy to tense in the blink of an eye.

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It’s honestly been ages since we’ve seen a professional production of West Side Story come to Singapore, and this show is about as good as it gets. Whether its the familiar pang of first love (and loss) that gets to you, the invigorating soundtrack or the brilliantly inventive choreography, there’s very little not to love about this musical about love, and the forces that plot to heed it in its tracks. It’s little wonder why West Side Story remains such a classic and mainstay of musical theatre, and if you’ve never caught it yourself, there’s no time like tonight to take this perfect opportunity to see just why it’s captured the hearts of countless fans around the world and across time.

Photo Credit: BASE Entertainment Asia

Performance attended 14/9/17

West Side Story plays till 24th September at Mastercard Theatres. Tickets available from SISTIC

West Side Story
When: Till24th September, 8pm (Tue – Fri), 1pm & 6pm (Sat – Sun), 2pm & 8pm (23 Sep)
Where: Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands

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