“The story has been around for thousands of years - boy meets girl, have boring factions on either side...” Begins Jamie Muscato. Currently reviving the role of Tony in Curve’s Christmas production of West Side Story, Muscato confirms; “It's an old story, but it's a completely always relevant story.”
Over sixty years since the release of its original, West Side Story, like it’s inspiration, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is still widely relatable and remains a firm favourite for theatre lovers around the world. Set in an upper West Side neighbourhood in New York, West Side Story follows two rival gangs of different ethnicities; the Jets and the Sharks. When former co-founder of the Jets, Tony, falls in love with the younger sister of the Shark’s leader, Maria (Adriana Ivelisse), friendships are challenged and boundaries are pushed to break away from the societal pressures they face.
“A good theatre production, I think, should just hold up a mirror. Wherever you are, if you see a good production of something thought-provoking it should hold something up and you should think; oh I see myself looking back and this could be something I can change, or this is something I agree.” Muscato continues, explaining, “Already in two and a bit weeks without costumes and lighting and whatever, I've been watching it and thinking oh wow I can see how I have thought that at times, or I have seen other people think certain things and I disagree with it. I think anybody coming to see it will find something moving and powerful.”
Directed by Curve’s Artistic Director, Nikolai Foster (White Christmas, Annie, Grease), New York has been brought to life in one of the musical’s first revivals since licensing was lifted. In the rehearsal rooms, there are photographs of teenage fashions in the 1950s and 1960s, and of the city and the weapons that threatened to tear it apart. The costume rails reveal a treasure trove of vintage store finds boasting vibrant colours in outlandish patterns, to be paired with cut off denim and leather suitcases as the characters start their journey to America. As well as a dozen or more wedding dresses waiting to be individually customised.
The set, designed by Michael Taylor, is intelligently dynamic. Four looming wrought fences with padlocked doors are arranged to line dark alleyways and basketball courts downtown, creating physical blocks between the Jets and the Sharks and ultimately, on the small minded society the musical is set around.
“Nothing has changed, as much as we might think things have, they haven't.” Muscato says, having found himself internet searching Border Detention centres in the US as he watched the company rehearse the prologue; “If you research them now, it's exactly the same. Nothing has changed. There's still systemic racism in culture, there's still groups of people trying to fight other groups of people who should get along because they're the same but we’re being told that they're not.”
West Side Story is perhaps most vividly remembered for its jazzy, bold numbers including ‘I Feel Pretty,’ and ‘America’ as well as its magnificent, heart-wrenching ballads; ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Maria’. In Curve’s production, the timeless score is made bigger than ever, performed by a sixteen piece orchestra live on stage. The familiar notes of ‘Maria’ and ‘Something’s Coming’ will transport audiences to the part playground, part warzone of Hell’s Kitchen in an instant.
Now free to create their own vision of an iconic musical, Foster has designed a stage show that will feel revitalised with original orchestrations and design. However, the heart of the story remains the same, with extra impact performed to audiences today. Performed over Christmas, the tragic tale will give everyone something to think and talk about over the festive period and in to the New Year.
Muscato discusses the similarities between the era in which the musical set to the present day; “The gang lifestyle was more the norm, than the not norm. People would have grown up with little to no support or money, or social mobility at that point. To survive, you needed to survive yourself with a pack. Tony and Riff started the Jets, so that they could start their own pack and lean on the support of those people and help each other.
“It's not quite the gangs we think about today, who sell drugs potentially, but they're a gang that choose this square to be theirs and their territory and they protect it.”
Adriana Ivelisse is portraying the role of Maria. Originally from Puerto Rico, she grew up with West Side Story being her mother’s favourite musical. “The vision that Nikolai [Foster] has for this production, is so conscientious and well thought out from the migrants and immigrants point of view.” she explains, “We were talking about the history of Puerto Rico in the first day of rehearsals and talking about how immigrants feel and how the show originally started - it's so interesting because the show is in the 1950s/1960s and it gave a map to a population of people who were marginalised and it put them on the big screen.
“Even though it was all brown face and it was written by white males, it's kind of like somebody who never had a voice suddenly had a really big one.”
Ivelisse came to England last year to study Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, and wrote to the casting of the production explaining what reprising the role in England would mean to her. Opening up, she confides, “I think I've always been since I was a little girl, very emotional and I didn't know how to control my feelings. I always thought how can people do this and that in certain situations but it's so hard for me? Theatre helped me become better with human interactions and to help me understand my journey and the human condition through life. I think it grounds me.” concluding, “It's my favourite thing to do in the world.” with a smile.
Our protagonists, Tony and Maria are best described as dreamers. They dream of a better life for themselves, of running away, getting married and having children, away from the venomous hatred that spreads to violence. They’re dreamers who did not have the opportunities that everybody should have.
Growing up, Ivelisse explains that she didn’t particularly like Maria. “I thought she was a very weak character and I didn't understand how she fell so in love with Tony that she didn't care about her brother's death.” and then, she got older, “I fell in love for the first time and I understood that it's so un-logical and everything changes at least for the first love, it just becomes everything.” It was then that she discovered, Maria was not weak at all. “Being able to say her lines and being able to see what she thinks and feels has given me another perspective to everything she says. I think she's young and I think she's naive but I think she's very strong and loving. We have so much more in common than I originally thought.”
It’s at a neighbourhood dance that our two leads lock eyes, to the fateful number, ‘Dance At The Gym’, and it’s Ivelisse’s favourite. “They’re supposed to be fighting but they are doing it through dance, and are controlling their feelings of wanting to punch and kill with showing off to who is the better person and better gang.” she smiles, “The music and everybody yelling, suddenly everything goes off, and it's about falling in love with a person and everything transforms into what those two people feel” She takes a moment’s pause to lean back in her chair, as though watching the scene play out in her mind, “That's insane. I love it.”
The goosebump moments of the show are partly credited to Ellen Kane (Groundhog Day, Matilda) who has put together original choreography for the production. The dances are stage filling, dynamic and quick footed, whilst tributing back to the cultural origination of the show. In many cases, they’re performed with an assisinating smile disguising the internal turmoil and confusion. Proclaiming; “I’m not a dancer!” Muscato says of the choreography; “I have the opportunity to sit and watch most of it. It's brilliant. Ellen has come at it from a story point of view, and she manages to tell a story with no words. It's impressive.”
The rumble scene is the talk of the rehearsal room and has been carefully prepared to show the severity of the actions from the characters. It’s explained that Kevin McCurdy choreographed the routine and explained the implications of each action on the human body had been performed. “It's horrible.” Muscato confirms, “It's West Side Story and people dance like "ooh I'm going to stab you,” but this feels like real. This makes me feel horrible and uncomfortable watching it. It's real, what it would have been.”
Set to a loud, disorientating soundscape of alarms, whistles and sirens, the world of West Side Story is chaotic with noise from all directions of its 30 strong cast. Against a minimal, dark and brooding backdrop, the vibrant colours of teenage kids with only a dime to their name and the power of being given a place and a voice, is truly the focus.
“Nikolai and the rest of the creative team have been so patient and so kind to me, they have made this transition from student to professional a dream. It's very strange as I have never walked in a rehearsal room that is filled with so much love from everywhere you look. I can't believe it, every time I wake up, I think I am so lucky. I am going to absorb every second of every moment. I’ve made a family in two weeks.” concludes Ivelisse.
Curve’s confidence to produce such a hard-hitting and powerful production over a usually joyous and upbeat festive period is courageous. It highlights the sheer determination of the company to bring West Side Story to today, using young actors to reiterate its messages to a new generation of theatre goers during a time of reflection. West Side Story is sure to be a Christmas spectacular.
West Side Story plays at Curve: Sat 23rd Nov 2019 - Sat 11th Jan 2020
*Cheeky Little Matinee interviewed Jamie and Adriana alongside Mark (Beyond The Curtain) and Phil (East Midlands Theatre) - Check out their sites!*
Photography by Ellie Kurttz