West Side Story at the Millennium Forum

The Forum's 'brave and talented' youth theatre group bring the dynamic musical to stage

'Don't be falling over me!' 'No, you are too close together... turn and face the audience!'

Such words, exchanged between actress Una Morrison and choreographer Nadine Hegarty, are the epitome of the atmosphere among the cast of this year's Millennium Forum Youth Theatre production, West Side Story, as they're put through their paces for 'Gee, Officer Krupke'.

The mixture of tomfoolery, tomboyish antics and yoga poses I see before my eyes is rather muddled and not so swift, more light-hearted than the kineticism one would mostly expect from the Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein musical set in Manhattan's Upper West Side. (Hence the title.) But it's an exception, rather than the rule, emanating from Hegarty's professional, animated blend of regimentation and spontaneity, which, by the time I arrive at the Forum’s studio in Derry~Londonderry, is filling the room's floors and mirrors with springing steps and beaming faces. 

They're shaking up Shakespeare. Just like Robbins, Bernstein and Arthur Laurents began to do exactly seventy years ago when they first discussed a contemporary musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. Ten years, one additional composer (Stephen Sondheim) and a few cosmetic tweaks later, their East Side Story had become the West Side Story on stage (and later screen) that every musical theatre and film fan recognises today.

Hegarty has visibly embraced bringing Robbins' movements to life with a 'brave and talented' cast, approaching West Side Story by way of 'following the choreographer's manual', keeping the production very authentic while incorporating recognisable, traditional movements.
 
'It's a beast of a show', she enthuses. 'It's not just a matter of the dance pieces being decorative; so much of the story is told through movement. The style and filming is very intricate, very artistic. So to a certain extent, we've modernised it, with creative elements.'

Stretching beyond the song and dance, West Side Story continues to endure as its bardic inspiration does, timeless themes about class, race and the destabilising, divisive effects of vengeance among family ties and a love story. 

It was a combination of story and a trip down memory lane that convinced director Jonathan Burgess, a veteran of multiple Millennium Forum pantomimes, to revisit the second production the Forum's Youth Musical Theatre group staged since it all began in 2005 with Les Miserables

Back then, the group appeared much more a hobby than a life choice for many a young, aspiring actor or dancer in the North West. But it has since progressed and evolved into something much more serious, a means of inspiring and developing youthful talent in these parts. 'It's a free resource provided by the Millennium Forum that you won't get anywhere else, and young people are taking advantage of the theatre group like I always hoped they would', says Burgess.

Forum Youth Group

Forum's Youth Musical Theatre group rehearsing

'The Forum takes their artistic development very, very seriously. When we stage shows like West Side Story, we do so for the benefit of the youngsters and the audience. Said youngsters have gone from bit parts, to leads, to drama school as far out as London, Liverpool, Everton or Glasgow. And we're starting to see the fruits of that now, as some of them return to us.'

For the dramatically-oriented Burgess, West Side Story was like a gift: a musical with an actual story. 'Musicals would kind of be my secondary enjoyment in theatre, behind plays and dramas, because they don’t have much of a narrative', he says. 'Here, there is a story, with a love affair that emerges, flourishes and ultimately has an unhappy ending.'

More than that, iconic show tunes like 'Tonight', 'Somewhere' and the biting 'America' have entranced, excited and even enriched hearts and minds for years. A score, a story and above all an experience that’s hard to resist, particularly for the cast.

'You can enjoy watching it at home, but you can't beat the experience of seeing something unfold in front of you, as live theatre', says Eoin Callaghan, who plays Bernardo. 

It is what separates stage from screen, something the theatrical youth of Derry~Londonderry and slightly beyond are relishing - the popular response to recent live adaptations of the likes of Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds at the North West Regional College illustrate this. Every show comes across as a challenge and a privilege to all involved, and West Side Story looks no different.

Especially for Amy Kilgore, a dancer since the age of three with many Londonderry Musical Society productions under her belt. The feisty Anita, a role made famous by Oscar-winner Rita Moreno, seems set to test her to the hilt but she is clearly looking forward to it: it is the aspect of performance, the slick moves and the relationships between characters off stage and cast on it that appeal to her. And when one considers the exceptional energy and lyrics of 'America', you know she has a point.

Callaghan, however, seems less convinced about the choreography. 'I'm not a dancer!', he chuckles. But already one gathers that he is surely in no better place to learn. 

For one thing, the National Youth Theatre’s Lucas Levy is playing Riff, although he's facing quite the challenge of his own. Having previously enjoyed reviewing the situation and picking a pocket or two as Fagin in last year's Oliver!, it's easy to assume that this more personal and less openly comedic role may well be tougher for Levy. 

Yet the parallels – and Levy's enthusiasm - are there. 'When I played Fagin, I really had to get the kids onside, which was crucial to making it work', he says. 'It's actually very similar with the Jets, but back then I was playing an adult and now we’re all playing characters our own age.'

He's pleased to be working with what he believes is among the best scores ever written and best musicals ever danced, with a Shakespearean storyline no less. 'Put all those things together, and it's an absolutely unbelievable piece to be able to do.' High praise indeed.

Where our star-crossed lovers Robert Kelly and Niamh Long, or Tony and Maria if you prefer, are concerned, it's partly a matter of finding the right key. For Long, Maria is a dream role for any soprano; for Kelly, Tony is a dream role for any tenor, along with Jean Valjean and the Phantom of the Opera.

But they are also tantalised by the prospect of singing these particular songs with a live orchestra. 'From looking at the orchestra score, it's mad how someone could play that music', Kelly says. 'But the songs themselves are something else. You can't take the opportunity to sing them with a live orchestra for granted.'

As with Kelly, Long's passion for and background in musical theatre is prominent. Both have participated in numerous musicals, and Long can also claim a West End debut on her resume, having reached the final of prestigious singing contest West End Calling. To her, the contrast between cinema and theatre fascinates: with no cuts or edits on stage, it is a matter of then or never for the actor. Full responsibility, improvisation in the moment, and strong character building.

'You get things in theatre that you don't get in film', says Long. 'And I think that's always good. Because you stay in the story, and your imagination flows. When it comes to your character, you find yourself thinking: what does she do in the morning, when she wakes up?'

The cast can't give too much about the production away, though I am told that this version will have a more ambiguous, open ending. And it's not as outlandish an idea as you might think: the recent political climate has re-highlighted West Side Story's topicality, as Levy points out. 'Although New York is essentially now a democrat state, those feelings that you see in West Side Story are starting to come up again. The way we leave it shows that it didn’t just all end with a few deaths: they were just one of many things that happened at the time. There was a thought that things were once getting better, but recent events have sort of showed they might not be.'

Director Burgess concurs, raising the prescience of the native vs. immigrant and entitlement themes that cropped up then and are cropping up again now. It's more than likely that they will strike a chord with audiences even while they are enjoying the song and dance next week.

'One point I have been very keen to stress with the cast is that all the characters are poor, so they face these dilemmas more than anyone else. They're deprived. Today we have people who feel deprived, whether they are or not. But they look for someone to blame or something to react to, then a kick comes back. That's a big problem.'

West Side Story runs at Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum from July 27 - 29. Tickets can be purchased here.