Music Review: West Side Story, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

John Eliot Gardiner provides a synopsised version of Bernstein's West Side Story.
John Eliot Gardiner provides a synopsised version of Bernstein's West Side Story.
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To say that Bernstein’s West Side Story has “an evergreen quality”, as conductor John Eliot Gardiner rightly claims in a written introduction to this synopsised Festival presentation, is to understate its visceral, timeless, gut-churning impact.

West Side Story, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****

Sophia Burgos's Maria was a blazing beacon among the cast. Picture:EIF

Sophia Burgos's Maria was a blazing beacon among the cast. Picture:EIF

He went on to prove as much in a concertised version that placed Bernstein’s razor-tooth score centre-stage, around which a firebrand young Americana and Scottish cast, directed by Stephen Whitson, enacted the bare outlines of the Robbins/Laurents/Sondheim Romeo and Juliet update, the emphasis ultimately centred on the iconic songs.

Nothing suffered as a result, save perhaps such nuanced moments as Maria’s final plea for peace over Tony’s dead body, the one perfunctory consequence of an otherwise riveting, inexorable part-staging that even brought out the thespian in Gardiner, sneakily donning a police cap and facing the audience to deliver the doleful lines of Officer Krupke.

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Otherwise, his central role was to draw from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra the genius in this music: Bernstein’s extraordinary ability to mould a menagerie of styles, from violent modernism to silken Puccinian lyricism, into a score as dramatically explosive and explicit today as in the 1950s.

If the centre-stage SCO was the engine room - as raunchily tuned into the Latin American pizzazz as they were meltingly sensuous in such signature numbers as Somewhere - it was the unstoppable energy and incendiary passion of the frenetic cast that really set the evening ablaze.

Every corner of the auditorium was exploited, the vying Jets and Sharks racing up aisles and along outside corridors like scurrying rats. Red-hot singing, coached by Christopher Bell, was matched by electrifyingly contained choreography. Among a unpretentiously passionate main cast, Sophia Burgos’ Maria and Alek Shrader’s Tony were blazing beacons. Needless to say, “Gee, Officer Krupke” was the inevitable show stopper.

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