West Side Story Joey McKneely (Picture: Alastair Muir)

West Side Story (Joey McKneely) | Theatre

Jemma Beggs was at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to review a performance of West Side Story, directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely.

Before I go any further I have a confession to make. Prior to this performance I had never seen West Side Story. As an avid theatre-goer I admit it has been rather remiss of me but, courtesy of Wales Millennium Centre and Joey McKneely, who both directed and choreographed this latest remake of the old classic, I have been enlightened.

The show was good. The singing was good, the acting was good and the dancing was certainly good. And yet as the curtain fell I was disappointed and I think the reason is simply that almost everything was just plain good. Not amazing or spectacular or breath-taking. Merely…good. To remake a classic you need a certain something; whether that be a twist on the old to embrace a new interpretation or simply a brilliant tribute to the original, there needs to be something to make it worth doing and this rendition was slightly lacking in a strong purpose.

Undoubtedly, there were aspects of the show that were far more than good – the choreography was superb, some of the lighting on the backdrops was stunning and the iconic songs, instantly recognisable even to a first time viewer, were as enjoyable as ever. In fact the brilliant musical score was really what made the show – Louis Maskell sang a beautiful rendition of ‘Maria’, as the ill-fated Tony, Djalenga Scott led a brilliant and highly amusing version of ‘America’, as the feisty Anita who was marvellous throughout and The Jets’ hard-hitting ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ was simultaneously humorous in its presentation and heart-wrenching in its truthful lyrics.

Unfortunately, the main hindrance to the success of the show was that, whilst great actors individually, together Katie Hall and Louis Maskell as Maria and Tony had little chemistry which, considering their tragic love story is integral to the plot, was very hard to recover from. Without this chemistry, the whole performance fell a little flat as it was a struggle to emotionally invest in the characters.

That said, by far the most enchanting scene was the dream sequence which included the duet ‘Somewhere’. Up until this point the action had mostly played out against a backdrop of greys, blacks and darker hues so when the background turned to brilliant white and the dancers took to the stage all adorned in outfits of the same colour, the effect was rather mesmerising. Whilst the dancing was not always in perfect synchronicity, the choreography was brilliant and there were some beautiful lifts in this piece and throughout the production, particularly between the two gangs in some of the fighting scenes.

Although left slightly unfulfilled by my first experience of West Side Story, I will admit that my expectations were extremely high having grown up with the knowledge that this is a much-loved classic. Whilst not the best musical I have seen this year, there was still much to commend it and certainly enough to persuade me to revisit this tragic tale again in the future.


Jemma Beggs has written many theatre reviews for Wales Arts Review.