Empire Arts were always going to be up against it with West Side Story. I love Les Miserables as a musical and I loved their 2011 production of it. Four stars, rave review, and a place on my personal podium at the end of the year. Even gave Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead my non existent ‘best directors’ medal. Follow that I said. Not possible I said. Ain’t a fan of Bernstein’s music. Sondheim’s lyrics, clever as they are, don’t match his later work. And they won’t have Natalie Wood. This sixties teenager shamefully saw the film because of her and mindlessly drooled through all the prancing of the Sharks and Jets. I didn’t get Romeo and Juliet or teenage gangs in those days but, by God, I got Natalie Wood. Her Maria is seared on my memory and every West Side Story I have seen since, and I have seen a few, carries that heavy baggage.
But this is Empire Arts and Miss Lucy O’Hare and Mr Ashley Mead. Set them a sniffy critic’s challenge and they not only have you eating your pre-conceived words, they have you spitting them out and serving them up as humble theatrical soup. In short their West Side Story at Harpenden Hall was a magical piece of energetic theatre that left you gasping. The downtown New York staging was spot on. It moved locations, from park to shop to kid’s club, in the blink of an eye. It splattered it all with awesome lighting (Fred Rayment) and magnificent Bernstein music (Graham Thomson). It had gangland Jets and Sharks dancing with professional aplomb. And amid all that youthful energy it gave us a smattering of first class performances that honed the narrative and touched the heart. A piece of theatrical class served up in two weeks of intensive summer school rehearsals. It shouldn’t be possible. That it is proves that Les Miserables and many other Empire Arts productions were no flukes. This company does what many don’t achieve in three months. I should hate them for their expertise. I have said before that I couldn’t do it. I lack the gift and the energy. But I can give them four stars. Effortlessly, from a miser who doesn’t dish those out to many. Especially to productions that don’t have Natalie Wood.
With such sure fired superb packaging any individual turn is a bit of a bonus. But class still shines even in the best collective productions. I give a large dollop of my brownie points to Bianca Baikie’s superb Maria, great emotional depth, Cameron Hay’s Riff, a strong and engaging portrayal, and Pari Shahmir’s wonderful Anita. These three stood out in a cast which included notable performances from Tony (Ollie Slade), Action (Stuart Grey), A-Rab (Jamie Pritchard), Anybodys (Ellie Reay), Bernardo (Jahale Juredini), the blonde wigged Consuelo (Nadine Turk) and a stunning and consummate Rosalia (Katherine Knight). Mr Slade, a sensitive and nicely judged Tony, suffered a bit in his singing and Mr Juredini needed to project his gang leader Bernardo a little more but all added to a sumptuous theatrical experience. Alex Wheeler made for a nice Chino, number two and thwarted beau in the Sharks, but lacked the necessary height for verisimilitude. And in this youth production depicting rebellious youth, the generational battle was generally spot on. In a large cast of energetic youngsters a clever sprinkling of authoritative adults underlined the essential truth of teenage gangland angst. (That’s the nearest you are going to get to a plot summation). A couple of Dunstable Rep stalwarts did a nice policing job and, even though unnamed, I reckon this is the first time they have been referred to as theatrical sprinklings. Should up their status at the Rep.
I said earlier that I am not a big fan of Bernstein’s aggressive American music. Doesn’t tick the boxes of someone who admits he prefers his music without the noise. I like it to touch the heart not invade the ears. But I am not stupid (discuss) and Mr Thomson and his orchestra beautifully conjured up the authentic Bernstein sound. I loved the energetic prologue, revelled in Tony and Maria’s evocative balcony scene, lapped up America and I Feel Pretty (fantastic singing from all four ladies including Sophia Turner) and thoroughly enjoyed an inventive Gee, Officer Krupke. The genius on the baton (I am beginning to think he is the best around) and his performers on stage milked everything in those outstanding numbers. All in all a bloody good afternoon (I gave up York horseracing for this) with hardly a false note. Great orchestra, great lighting, great staging, great sound (Graham Elliott, in case he feels missed out), and great direction from O’Hare and Mead. I don't do worthy community tick boxes. Too long in the tooth. You have to earn your theatrical praise from me. Empire Arts does. They clearly rule in the summer. Wonderful. Four stars. Again. Even without Natalie Wood.