Cranleigh School Performs West Side Story

Going to the theatre to watch two rival teenage gangs regularly fighting and eventually witnessing the murders of three of them, hardly…

Going to the theatre to watch two rival teenage gangs regularly fighting and eventually witnessing the murders of three of them, hardly sounds like the most enjoyable evening out, but then we are talking about Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, based conceptually upon Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But this was no ordinary school production. From start to end, the show was a feast for the eyes and ears. For a production such as this to work, a phenomenal amount of work during rehearsals and focus – right up until the very last curtain call – are required and it is fair to say that these criteria were fully met.

I feel (from experience) that is also fair to say that, in musicals with such sophisticated choreography, schoolgirls usually outperform schoolboys noticeably, but there was such parity in the excellence in this production. Whilst the girls (and many thanks to Cranleigh Abu Dhabi for adding a further layer of excellence!) provided some outstanding set pieces – the “America” number was unforgettable and something that would have been well-received in a West-End production, the boys provided a very different macho-style of dance which worked superbly well, too. As Joel P-P (who played a superb Riff) mentioned in his programme notes, “the dancing was very hard”. From the audience’s perspective, it all looked so effortless and every single member of the cast is to be congratulated on their timing, presentation and focus.

Leah S. played a hugely convincing Maria with her bubbly, innocent and child-like interpretation of the part, particularly in the post-interval “I feel pretty” number. Ted S., as Tony, complemented the naivety. I have seen Tony played in a much more ‘bravado-ish’ way, which has not always worked, but Ted’s forlorn, love-sick and, again, child-like approach made the partnership work powerfully, with some beautiful duetting, which contrasted with the discordant music required for the aggressive moments. The music and its juxtaposed switching from sweet to harsh and back again from scene to scene was wonderfully provided by the band, very ably conducted by Musical Director, Andrew Thomas.

The principals are all to be congratulated. Nicola O. was an outstanding Anita and her performance, on several occasions, was worthy of a professional production. James F. as Bernardo oversaw the Sharks’ leadership with a cheeky but ultimately dangerous attitude. Tabitha L. (Anyboys) played her part so well, appearing all over the place with some wonderful facial expressions which struck a chord with the audience. There are too many names to mention, but, looking at the programme, every character made the most of whatever role they had. It takes an entire cast to make a show work and whenever and wherever we as an audience looked at the stage, every single actor was playing her or his part with focus and concentration. It is precisely this approach that makes a production what it is.

The comic relief moments, which are very much needed throughout this “tragedy”, were all carried off with so much aplomb, but the one that really, really stood out was the rendition of “Gee, Officer Krupke!” That was one of the very, very best school numbers I have seen in thirty years of teaching and one that will not be forgotten. Playing the character ‘Action’, Laith H.’s performance as the “Social Disease”, was sublime. He was ably supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Sterling S. – playing ‘Snowboy’, but pretending to be Officer Krupke, as he moved around the stage manically going through psychoanalysis. Charlie L. (A-Rab) and Alfie A. (Baby John) as U5 must also be recognised for holding their own onstage alongside their 6th form counterparts, Freddie P. and Brandon G. The roars and applause from the audience at the end of that number spoke volumes.

We get towards the very end and there is another death. Chino (Kyle S.) nervously shoots Tony and Kyle’s facial expression of horror at what he had done was clear. The audience reacted with genuine shock – to be expected after such an upbeat “social disease” number. Maria grabs the gun. It is all over after her outburst of emotion. Leah S.’s childlike Maria is no more.

At the end, the “adults”, Doc (Emma H.), Officer Krupke (Toby A.), Glad Hand (Dexter G.) and Lt. Schrank (Louis H. – who “had the most convincing American accent out of everyone” as I heard pupils saying) stare out into the audience with a look of unsettling frustration at what has happened. A sad reminder of what we see in the news today.

Performed at Cranleigh 60 years ago in 1964, this 60th anniversary shows what a timeless musical West Side Story is. I imagine few of us (if any?) were at the original 60 years ago, but massive congratulations to all the cast, dancers, band and creative team of Richard Saxel, Dominique Chapman, Emily McGhee and Jonathon Scott on a superb production.

Written by Mr Lindsay Macdonald

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