Review West Side Story – Perins

19
July
2019

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REVIEW: West Side Story, School Edition, Perins at The Grange
Kevin Gover, News Editor
Images: Leela Bennett Photography

“I think I’ll go back to San Juan…” – “I know a boat you can get on. Bye-Bye!”

Thoughts from the White House this week? Happily, no… these are from the song ‘America’ – created by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein in 1957 – and yet which rang true and hit hard last night in this splendid production of ‘West Side Story’.

How can it be that some things appear not to have changed in more than 60 years?

Boy meets girl, boy and girl are from different ethnic backgrounds, girl’s family don’t agree, prejudice ensues, a rumble ends in tragedy.

Tony (Ben Watts) and Maria (Isabelle Packer) are caught between street gangs, the ‘American’ Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Boy, I’m sure that all the cast members of Jets and Sharks enjoyed THAT bit… yeah, just go and be wild on stage!

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Above all, this has not been watered down in any way, either – the creators of the ‘School Edition’ point out that they’re only trying to make the musical “more accessible and meaningful for high school performers.” Hatred, violence and prejudice as we know is still relevant today.

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The score and lyrics are still there. After all, they’re surely some of the best ever written? Jerome Robbins’ choreography is also largely followed throughout – especially in the beautiful portrayal of the ‘Cha Cha / Meeting / Love at First Sight’ sequence and in ‘I Feel Pretty’ (think there was something in my eye on both counts…).

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(
First Meeting)

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(I Feel Pretty)

You will all know of course how important the choreography is to the film and musical, so congratulations to former pupil Olivia Painter who graduated from Perins in 2012 and was given the task. Since then she went on to the Royal Academy of Dance in ballet, and now works as a teacher: “It’s quite a task, but I’m loving it. Working with the students is amazing. They’re so enthusiastic and the level of commitment is outstanding. 

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“Because I’m a teacher, I suppose I can bring in a bit of crowd control. It’s never a trouble with them, they are so enthusiastic they’re really ready to go. As long as I convey my thoughts to what I would like to see them do on stage, we do a little bit of technical training, and make sure that everyone is on the same level.”

Olivia agrees that the whole cast always wants to take it a little bit further: “To put it in The Grange, to put it on a professional stage with a whole orchestra in the pit… well, they just take it to new levels each time…”

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As far as The Grange is concerned, the Artistic Director of the Grange Festival, Michael Chance, is delighted to have everyone there as he wrote in the programme: “Recognising a real passion for the performing arts in a local school warms the heart. Giving over our theatre… gives us a real thrill.”

There are so many songs to love. Both the leads managed all their top notes faultlessly, soaring around the theatre.

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I loved the ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ segment, as it’s not easy to get those words out. Ah, did I mention words? Don’t think I heard a single stumble.

The ‘Community Orchestra’ was simply splendid – and congratulations to all those students, staff and parents in the orchestra who stepped up to the mark big time.

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One thing very noticeable of course is that the whole story is dark and moody. On the lighting front the actors were always in the right place at the right time… but the lights didn’t always seem to follow them. To create light and shade, I would have liked to see cheerier, brighter lighting in the big dance scenes, to show the contrast between those and the moody, dark sequences.

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It was very difficult at times to remember these were children on stage? Ben Watts and Isabelle Packer are teenagers from Perins? Get out of here. These two leading lights are going to be true stars, if not already. They received a standing ovation – as did Maisie Stride (Anita) – which was well deserved.

No. This wasn’t a school performance. This was a professional, slick, romantic and gritty show. The last four minutes contained some of the most intense drama I have ever seen.

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(Part of the last four minutes…)

Well done to all the young performers too, who drew a cheer from the crowd as they made their own curtain call. Yes this was YOUR show as well.
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Fantastic.