West Side Story is one of the most popular and enduring musicals there is, and one of the few that gets performed in “real” opera houses. In many ways Bernstein’s work is truly operatic, with many recurring motifs symbolising the characters’ thoughts and emotions, and richly textured ensembles, where each character’s state of mind is apparent. It is only when brought together with Jerome Robbins’ wonderful choreography and Arthur Laurents’ book that this modern tale of Romeo and Juliet really becomes a musical.

© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de
© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

The production in Berlin’s Komische Oper by Barrie Kosky and Otto Pichler retained Sondheim’s lyrics in English, while translating the spoken dialogue into German – an unusual choice for an opera house whose USP is singing everything in German, but good for non-German audiences (and for the dialogue there’s always the in-seat subtitles, which you can set to your language of choice). The set is awash with gritty minimalism, with scaffolding and ladders effectively conjuring up an image of New York as a city of tall buildings and fire escapes. Though generally effective, the set was undermined by somewhat incongruous bling. The endless sea of disco balls, which descended on the stage for the school dance, and proceeded to appear at random throughout the rest of the evening, didn’t really mesh with the sparseness of the rest of the set.

The costumes were well matched to the set design, being mostly black and grey with very little colour to speak of, and the overall bleak visual effect accentuated the tragedy of the work. Shirtless, tattooed Sharks were pit against hoodie-clad Jets in a 21st-century portrayal of the musical’s cultural warfare. However, in the costumes as in the set design there was an incongruous addition in the form of colourful masks, whose purpose was wholly unclear.

The casting of the two gangs left a little more to be desired. The racial aspect was largely ignored, but more striking was the ages of the singers. The men especially were considerably older than the characters they were supposed to portray, which in itself is not an issue (no-one’s ever seen a 16-year-old Isolde!) but they didn’t seem to embody the youthfulness of their characters, so when Krupke came to the stage the contrast of adult and teenager was scarcely noticeable.

As Maria, Alma Sadé was full of life. She really brought out the youthfulness of her character and lived every emotion to the full. Her final scene, mourning over the dead Tony, is one of the most powerful in any musical I know, and in her hands it was as strong as I’ve ever seen it. Michael Pflumm’s Tony was somewhat less successful. His stage demeanour was slightly awkward, more like trainee accountant than a gang leader, which made the love affair between him and Maria difficult to swallow. Vocally, both were highly commendable, with good English and powerful, operatic voices, but I couldn’t help but feel that both would have been more comfortable (and better suited to) singing Pamina and Tamino than Maria and Tony.

The other main characters were strong, with Kevin Foster’s Chino and Gianni Meurer’s Bernado particularly striking. However, it was Minori Therrien who really stole the show as Anita. With a really powerful musical-theatre voice and an electrifying stage presence, she fully embodied this difficult character, with its combined aspects of mother and friend.

© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de
© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

The amplified orchestra of the Komische Oper also played well for musical director Koen Schoots. The sound of the strings didn’t take too well to being miked, up but this was more than made up for by the brass and saxophones, whose playing simply had pizazz!

The evening had some incredible highlights. “America” was full of energy and life with ingeniously descriptive choreography and “The Rumble” was pure excitement. My personal high point was “A Boy Like That”, which was totally emotionally consuming, from Anita’s pain to Maria’s spark of hope for the future. Sadly, overall this production left me with too many whys to be wholly enjoyable. Why the masks? Why is Tony still at school when he’s clearly 30? Why are all the women scantily clad and slapping each other’s arses? Why did the Jets have a group gay experience in the second act? That’s just the beginning of the questions, and the result is a performance with wonderful moments but a somewhat shredded golden thread.