First Night: West Side Story, Sadler's Wells, London <img src="" alt="4 stars" height="10" width="56"/>

Classic makes a full-hearted return
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The Independent Culture

You can see why they were terrified. Gang fights, race hatred, flick knives – you call this a musical? It's no wonder the Tony judges, with – in the language of Arthur Laurents' book – the spit scared out of them, gave the award for the best show of 1957 to The Music Man (now enjoying a dazzling revival at Chichester, for those who want to make their own comparisons).

But, though the initial Broadway run was also disappointing, the subject matter of this uptown Romeo and Juliet, as well as the lyrics by a new writer, Stephen Sondheim, and the dances of choreographer-director Jerome Robbins, would prove enormously influential.

The current revival, directed by Joey McKneely, is, inevitably, less shocking than the original, but it is hardly lacking in excitement. The show suffers, of course, from the increasing vulgarity and knowingness of all culture, not just that of the slums, but even 50 years ago West Side Story made considerable concessions to gentility and pragmatism.

One's suspension of disbelief really takes the strain now, from actors about 10 years older than present-day gang members who speak chastely and intelligibly and a "hoodlum" who dresses better than David Cameron on his day off. Magnificent as Leonard Bernstein's score still is, it contributes to the slightly dated feel in its most effort-fully hip number, "Cool".

But from the moment Donald Chan's splendid orchestra plays the first few notes of the best-known overture since Carmen, we are transported to a stylised New York where "Polack" Jets and "PR" Sharks, then the most despised white and brown minorities, respectively, express most of their hostility with high kicks and snapping skirts.

Reproducing Robbins's choreography, McKneely has drilled dancers who imply plenty of violence and who make the murderous rumble look horribly realistic. (Among the untouchable dances, however, is the excruciating "There's a Place for Us" ballet of reconciliation for smiling, white-clad dancers.)

Two performers share each of the lead roles. On the press night, Ryan Silvermann's Tony showed off a powerful and eloquent voice, Sofia Escobar's Maria an enchanting one, and both were charming in their intimate moments. Both, however, could have done with some more roughness and passion, qualities that Marco Santiago's deadly Bernardo has in abundance. As the sensuous and anguished Anita, Lana Gordon, though an excellent dancer, mistakes volume for emotion and needs more warmth to balance her anger. The most beautiful number in the show, her "A Boy Like That" duet with Maria, particularly suffers from from unmodulated harshness.

The lyrics are, for the most part, easy to hear, though the boys are better than the girls, and the cast lacks the insouciance necessary to point the comic lines. All things considered, though, this revival is both an excellent introduction and a welcome reminder of this classic with a rich, full sound and a great, full heart.