MADEUP attended last year’s Stage Experience at the Empire with an initial trepidation that did somewhat of a disservice to the efforts that resulted on stage. This year, it was nice to head down with the knowledge that it would be a quality production showcasing some promising new talent, and on that score it certainly didn’t fail.
Classic romance West Side Story seemed like a good choice for the annual summer project, which brings together young performers over the summer for three nights of performances. One of the nicest things about it is there seemed to be little evidence of nerves, quite the opposite. This looked like a cast that was really enjoying the opportunity to be on stage, which is always a pleasure.
At times, the sound and the music of the live band was so quiet, you could hear people’s seats squeaking in the audience. This – twinned with a crowd that in some sections seemed to forget they weren’t at home watching telly – did nothing for the two big dramatic scenes; the climax of the rumble, and the tragic ending. “Is it finished, then,” a voice piped up behind me as the curtain fell for the interval. Phones rang throughout and people talked loudly. Oh well. At least it was good to see the project so well-supported.
So with this in mind, the more raucous numbers were the ones that proved most successful, the company reprise of Tonight, and the comic interlude of Gee, Officer Krupke among them.
It was the girls that elevated this show into something quite memorable. Rachel Burdette-Smith did not put a foot wrong as Maria; sweet as honey and with a voice to match, she was an absolute charmer of a leading lady. Alternatively Ashleigh Egan, as her firey sister Anita, gave the piece some soul with her feminine presence and big voice, refreshingly independent and rocky rather than stage school standard. The pair stole every scene they were in. Like a true gent, David Moorst’s capable, yet subtle Tony let the female characters around him shine.
By and large, possibly because of the large cast of more than 100 teenagers, that iconic West Side Story choreography lacked some of the cool snap and dynamism required. Our Jets looked far too nice and middle class to be hoodlums, but thanks to some good performances, including Sol Adams as Action and Tim Lucas as A-Rab, came with considerable charm. The dramatic scenes suffered, for the reasons above and for the placing of the interval, which it seemed should have naturally come after the high of Tonight building up to the rumble. The ending, too, seemed somewhat sudden, and with the audience’s bad habit of breaking into loud conversation every time the stage went dark, the performers were somewhat up against it.
But as stated before, those big, memorable numbers – America, I Feel Pretty and Cool among them, were very enjoyable and well-performed, and this production is practically worth going to see for Burdette-Smith and Egan alone.
West Side Story is on at the Empire until Saturday (August 6).
Pictured are Rachel Burdette Smith and David Moorst as Maria and Tony. Photo credit: Mike James.