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I waxed lyrical about last year’s production, but this year was just as strong, and excellent in all respects.  I couldn’t fault it technically or artistically.

The thought that Lucy O’Hare, Ashley Mead and Graham Thomson can get these young performers to such a high standard of performance in under two weeks is mind-blowing, and a credit to them and all their helpers.  Long may it continue, as a production like this gives me (and I’m sure all their audiences) such a boost, to know that so many young people are willing to give so much and achieve such quality of performance.

The band had a beautifully full and rounded sound, a pleasure to listen to – the Prologue was a superb expression of the feel of the piece, aligned with the strong choreography including a fight scene, all took us right into the heart of the musical.  The band was an accompaniment at all times and never drowned out the people on stage – which was a testament to Graham’s control and understanding of the complete work.

Not easy music – but I always felt the cast were secure in what they were doing, and gave us strong meaning and musicality to every number.  There wasn’t a weak number in the whole show.

The set was well-thought out and constructed, and allowed for movement of the cast in and around it well, and costumes were completely in keeping with the characters, they looked good and generally the whole production had a tight pacy feel to it that didn’t drop at all.  Lighting was first class and complemented the feel of the set and the action, with sound also fulfilling our needs at all times.

Ollie Slade again came up trumps, he gave a beautifully sensitive portrayal of Tony, this young man is fast becoming a superb all round performer – his rendition of “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” were so expressive and lyrical, I was carried into his world.  His voice range is expanding well so that he can sing the lower notes but also transfer to a falsetto without a break – which is quality.  I can’t praise him enough for a strong yet vulnerable portrayal, and although I’m sure he was assisted in reaching this by the team, at the end of the day he put soul into it, and that is instinctive, you could see in his eyes the expression and thought behind what he was singing and saying.

Bianca Baikie’s Maria was also a revelation, she was vulnerable and wistful, becoming strong at the end, and again showed a real understanding of the words both sung and spoken.  The rapport between Maria and Tony was excellent, sometimes a relationship like this in a show is awkward, but these two have an innate sense of trust and understanding within their friendship which made the relationship real and beautiful.  The music was pitched high in Bianca’s register, but she was still able to make it tuneful and tender when needed.

Pari Shahmir was a very feisty Anita – showing both skill and fire in her characterisation, which contrasted well with Maria, and seemed to bring out that quality in the other Shark girls.  America is always a show-stopping number and this was no exception, the choreography was clever, but was woven well into the music and gave us a real Puerto Rican flavour.

Bernardo and Riff the leaders of the opposing gangs were both well-played by Jahale Juredini and Cameron Hay respectively.  They both maintained good characterisation throughout, and the fight scene was nicely accomplished.  

Bernardo’s gang the Sharks were all very PR in their swagger and attitude, which contrasted well with the more angry young men of the Jets.  Alex Wheeler created a good character as Chino, who came into his own when he killed Tony.

Stuart Grey as Action was definitely a very angry young man, and gave it his all, whilst Harvey Eldridge as Baby John gave us some humorous moments, and Tom Pigram as Big Deal showed how much he has come on in the last year or so.  

I loved the Somewhere ballet, it was almost ethereal, accompanied by Sophie Thomas who sang beautifully to a wonderful accompaniment from the band.

I feel I should mention the older members of the cast taking the four truly adult parts, Doc – David Sachon, Lt. Schrank – Phil Baker, Officer Krupke – Joe Butcher and Glad Hand – Brian Wood.  I think they all had to dig deep to portray their characters within such a tight knit cast, that required them to be really on their game, which they did.

I loved Cool, it was well choreographed and danced, with Cameron leading the way as Riff, and I particularly liked one moment within the number when his eyes flashed to the audience and held them there for a second before returning to the gang.  Cameron is another guy who is starting to realise his full potential and give some wonderfully diverse performances.  

Another show-stopper was Gee, Officer Krupke – it was a moment of light relief from the more weighty drama of the show – and again the lads came up trumps, with a particularly good showing from Stuart and Harvey.  This gave dimension to all the lads characters, showing a more humorous side to their nature between all the anger and tension.

I cannot praise the whole cast enough, it seemed strange to see such a diversity of age and height in the gangs, but it did not detract from the fact that they acted and sang their socks off, to make this another memorable production from Empire.

The finale was beautifully done – well done for not falling into the trap of conventional bows – it was completely right and all the more heart-wrenching done in the way it was.  Full marks for bringing a tear to the eye of a hardened old theatre reviewer!!

So, once again Empire, their superb team and cast pulled out an excellent production, giving the audience tenderness, sadness, tension, drama, angst within a well-written piece.  With so many talented young people wanting to be involved in the theatrical world, I can’t wait for next year!!

Nova Horley

Empire Theatre Arts

WEST SIDE STORY” review date: 25H August 2012

Direction & Choreography:  Lucy O’Hare & Ashley Mead

MD: Graham Thomson


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