Bernstein - West Side Story

Paris Châtelet, Tuesday November 27 2007

Conductor: Donald Chan. Production and choreography: Joey McKneely. Sets: Paul Gillis. Costumes: Renate Schmitzer. Lighting: Peter Halbsgut. Tony: Sean Attebury. Maria: Ann McCormack. Anita: Vivian Nixon. "West side story orchestra".

I must own up to being ill-equipped to assess West Side Story. I enjoy musicals and usually try to fit one in when in New York, but I can only have seen about a dozen in all between New York and London. As far as I can remember, though I've obviously seen scenes on TV, I've never actually seen the whole film. Of course, I know the songs but am familiar with the score mainly through the symphonic dances. And I have a devil of a job "deciphering" amplified sound, not being used to it.

The current "50th anniversary" Paris show is in fact a German touring production, billed as "original" because it recreates the original Robbins choreography; but from what I've read in the press (not knowing first-hand) the sets and costumes are new, or at any rate "updated." The set is an efficient combination of giant, black and white, photographic backdrops of 50s New York and mobile banks of scaffolding, fire escapes and balconies. The "updated" costumes might as well not have been, as they are of indistinct date.

It may have been an advantage to me not to be familiar with the film. My neighbour, who knows it by heart, was naturally disappointed by the live staging and, in the end, bored. But to me, the big dance numbers were a fair success. Where this production really fell down was in the quality of the young soloists, not, by far, up to the standards of Broadway principals. Tony and Maria were not alone in singing out of tune, and it was only towards the end of the show that they found the personalities that were sorely lacking until then and started acting. I had the feeling that less amplification would have been kind both to them and to the (small) orchestra. As it was, it brought out a definite acid quality in the voices and exposed every cracked note in the pit. Donald Chan's conducting was more brisk and efficient than in any way stylish.

Paris has no real tradition of musicals and, on the rare occasions they come, tends to get what look like provincial productions. This was no exception: provincial and/or smacking of the stage school graduation show. Quite enjoyable (and it was a pleasure to hear the score in full), but not up to New York or London standards.


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