West Side Story, Sadler's Wells, London

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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? No wonder the Tony judges gave the award for the best show of 1957 to The Music Man. But the subject matter of this uptown Romeo and Juliet, as well as the lyrics by a new writer, Stephen Sondheim, and the dances of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins would prove enormously influential. This revival, directed by Joey McKneely, is, inevitably, less shocking than the original, but it is hardly lacking in excitement.

The show suffers from the increasing vulgarity and knowingness of all culture. Even 50 years ago, West Side Story made concessions to gentility and pragmatism. One's suspension of disbelief is strained now by gang members who speak chastely and intelligibly, and a "hoodlum" who dresses better than David Cameron on his day off. Leonard Bernstein's score is still, of course, magnificent, with its propulsive "Tonight" and ironic/thrilling "America". It too, however, contributes to the slightly dated feel.

But from the moment Donald Chan's splendid orchestra plays the first notes of the best-known overture since Carmen, we are transported to a stylised New York where "Polack" Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks express most of their hostility with high kicks and snapping skirts. Reproducing Robbins's choreography, McKneely's dancers make both the gang-bang and the murderous rumble horribly realistic.

Ryan Silverman's Tony has a powerful and eloquent voice, Sofia Escobar's Maria an enchanting one, but both could do with more sex and grit, qualities that Marco Santiago's Bernardo has in abundance. An excellent dancer, Lana Gordon, playing Anita, is tarty rather than sensual. The boys, for the most part, enunciate the lyrics clearly, but the girls need a lot more work.

Sondheim's humour is also often short-changed, although I was amused by a verse from "Gee, Officer Krupke": "Dear kindly social worker,/ They say, 'Go earn a buck,'/ Like 'Be a soda jerker,'/ Which means, like, 'Be a schmuck.'" In just four lines, Sondheim cheekily abandons realism for a second to remind us that this great work about Hispanics and Polish Catholics was created by four Jews.

To 31 August (0844 412 4300)

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