West Side Story still has power to excite says its young lovers

West Side Story.

West Side Story, a hot-blooded musical about love and violence among the gangs of New York, was ground-breaking when first released in 1957.

Teenagers as a species, had only just been recognised. No-one had thought to depict their lives, loves and language since..well.. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

From its very first encore WSS has epitomised the very best in American musicals with both the stage and screen versions entrancing millions of viewers over the years.

The latest production has been touring since November. It arrives at Milton Keynes Theatre June 3, but I met up with the cast at an earlier venue to once again be wowed by this glorious show-stopper.

At its helm is director and choreographer Joey McKneely who was responsible for revitalising the musical for an earlier tour in 2008.

He couldn’t wait to return to the subject and his passion for the story is obvious.

More than 55 years after its birth – from a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins – WSS still has the capacity to look raw and relevant to a modern audience.

The young cast bring to life the story of the warring Jets and Sharks.

At the heart of this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet are two teenage lovers, the shy, naïve Maria and her streetwise lover Tony.

The only thing standing in the way of their happiness is their upbringing.

Playing the dusky Puerto Rican Maria is the lovely blonde Katie Hall, a terribly nice girl from the Home Counties who we last saw as the French ingénue, Christine, in Phantom of the Opera.

She’s joined by the tall, handsome newcomer Louis Maskell as the American WASP-dressed Tony.

West Side Story.

“When I got the part of Tony,” said Louis, “I really wanted to explore more of the gang element which I felt had been lacking in some productions.

“Tony started the Jets but left to pursue his dreams and aspirations which is really difficult for him to do.

“It’s a fantastic part to play because he not only oozes this masculinity but he also gets to fall in love so quickly, which is so rare.

“I’m really enjoying myself. It’s an amazing part and an amazing show.

“It took me three very intense auditions to get the role. Joey is a real perfectionist. Right from the off there was that passion and intensity that he exudes.

“I saw his 2008 production and was blown away. It was so dark and gritty.

“All youths of today are finding it harder to find that path to where they can be safe and comfortable. I relate to his aspirations.

“When I was younger I went to quite a rough school in Catford. I had to put on this accent and was part of a group of guys, so I can definitely relate to that sort of camaraderie.

“In this production we’re all young and new to the business so off-stage we’re almost living the parts. We all have this youthfulness and energy which transcends to the stage”.

For months before the show began on tour Louis researched 1950s America and its gang culture to build a picture of what life was like for immigrant kids on the streets.

“It was fascinating. You could relate what they went through with the London riots which happened a few years ago. These aren’t necessarily bad guys but they find themselves in a bad situation.

“Schoolchildren today will still find the story relevant because you’re always going to get those cliques and groups in the playground. It’s a perfect show for students to come and watch.”

Katie, who off-stage, is about as far removed from Maria as it’s possible to get, stuns audiences with her powerful, almost operatic voice.

She said: “The songs, like Tonight and I Feel Pretty, are amazing. Bernstein knew how to write for the voice. They are all such a joy to sing. I love it.

“I really like singing I Have A Love and I Feel Pretty is fun to sing.

“Playing Maria is a bit of a stretch for me as I’m a white blonde girl. I’m from near Peterborough so Maria’s character was quite alien to me.

“Djalenga (Scott) who plays Anita, actually came over from Puerto Rico so she knows what it’s like.

“I didn’t do all the research that Louis did but I did sit with Joey and work out a story about her. After I got the hang of the accent I really fell in love with Maria. It’s a part that really suits me.

“The rehearsal was pretty gruelling. I think we all cried at least once.

“On one day we weren’t allowed to go into the room because in there the Sharks and the Jets were screaming racist abuse at each other and then dancing the mambo.

“We finally went back in and everyone was sobbing. It was very method!”

West Side Story runs at Milton Keynes Theatre from June 3-14.

The tour continues until September.

For more dates and venues go to www.westsidestorytheshow.co.uk/tour-tickets

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