West Side Story – Summer 2015

Director: Claudia Pepler and Amy Maughan
Musical Director: Joseph Church
Vocal Coach: Dora Bishop

all photographs are the property of Dave Merritt Photography

Review by Andrew Caroenter – Featured in The Frome Standard

There can be no doubt that West Side Story, based on a conception by Jerome Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Berstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is one of the best musicals ever written. Tri.Art Summer School did real justice to it in their latest production at the Merlin Theatre recently as they showcase the skills of their talented cast. Words that came to mind are ‘passion’ and ‘energy’ and this combination produced a dynamic throughout and took us on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

The story is set in the Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City in the mid-1950s, an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood. The musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a Caucasian gang. The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre. In the roles of Tony and Maria, Matt Graham and Tabi Cox both excel with their beautiful voices and a chemistry that immediately establishes their relationship and sets the basis for the entire production. Matt has a beautiful tone to his voice that makes it very listenable and Tabi brings such characterisation to her singing that ensures the full meaning of any song is drawn out for audiences to understand and enjoy.

They are wonderfully supported by a very talented young cast including Ryan Hughes as Riff. He is fast becoming one of the most well-loved faces on the am dram scene in Frome and only recently wowed audiences in the production of Rent at the Merlin Theatre. This was a very different and measured performance and showed his ability as an actor in the strongest possible light. Pete White as Bernardo excelled and was a perfect foil for Ryan. His Puerto Rican accent was perfect and maintained throughout. Pete has always been a good actor but is now a true all round musical performer. Marie-Claire Wood as Anita is a new face to Frome audiences and they will hope to see her again and again. Her stage presence is stunning and her acting and singing, particularly in her rendition of A boy Like That and the taunting scene, was of the highest calibre. A word too for Abi Holmes as Rosalia with her and Marie-Claire’s, plus others, rendition of America being an undoubted highlight of this memorable production. The skill of Ben Hardy-Phillips as a performer is already well-known to Frome audiences, with a string of principal roles to his name already in the town, and here again he shone in the role of Action. A mainly young cast was joined by three seniors in Nick White as Lt. Schrank, Aynsley Minty as Officer Krupke and Steve Scammell as Doc and Glad Hands.

Far too many cast members to mention all by name but suffice to say collectively they produced a truly memorable musical that does real justice to the writers. This doesn’t happen by chance and with Claudia Pepler as director, Amy Morgan Bell as choreographer and Harry Burt as musical director it was obvious these three talented individuals had a huge influence on proceedings.

Musically the show is outstanding both in terms of performers’ singing and orchestration. An orchestra of 15, housed neatly away stage left, really set the tone for this production with the wonderful overture, combined with an ingenious film sequence on the back wall of the stage, and congratulations are due for fully mastering this difficult musical piece to near perfection.

There is no doubt that the choreography throughout was outstanding with Amy’s attention to detail, in terms of her personal choreography for individual characters like John for example, was most noticeable and credit worthy. In particular the ‘fight scenes’ were impressively choreographed, learned and delivered.

It was obvious that Claudia Pepler’s influence was written all over this production as she is well known for being able to extract the very best from her actors when it comes to emotion. This combined with a clever lighting plot, particularly using shafts of red light to indicate somebody had died, combined to ensure every ounce of drama was extracted from the libretto and brought to life on stage.

Tri.Art Summer School is to be congratulated for its achievement both in terms of this production and indeed for what it provides all year round. The town of Frome is fortunate to have this group in its midst.