For any musical theatre enthusiast, West Side Story should need no introduction: the classic Bernstein/Sondheim collaboration of 1950s American home-grown and immigrant gangs (based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) is a timeless musical gem, with themes that are just as relevant today as when the musical was first staged.
What may be less familiar to the uninitiated is the ethos behind RicNic Theatre Company itself: their annual performances at Winchester’s Theatre Royal follow just one month of concentrated rehearsals and, as if that were not impressive enough, they are performed by a group of essentially self-directed youngsters (aged 16-21 years) who are responsible for all aspects of the production, both on and off stage, learning not just performance and technical skills through the experience, but also discipline, tenacity, hard endeavour and teamwork. However, if you are therefore expecting this to be a low-quality production, let me enlighten you: the performances are absolutely outstanding! Right from the start, each actor’s intent, concentration, focus, energy, pace and characterisation are absolutely first-class.
Under the accomplished collective eye of Emily Pacey (making her debut as director), Lottie Mitchell (musical director), Angus Odling (vocal coach) and their assistants, there are no weak links at all amongst the very talented cast. Josh Henderson (Tony) has terrific stage presence and strong acting skills, and he shares an intense, passionate and totally credible onstage chemistry with Rosa Sparks, who in turn epitomises the very essence of Maria’s naïve, loving, determined nature. Both have a terrific vocal range and are able to sing the complex timings and intervals with apparent ease and emotional depth.
Oliver Norman (Bernardo) has a commanding presence on stage as the leader of the Sharks, bringing a steely resolve and cynical edge to his character, while his fight with Harry Pudwell (rival gang leader, Riff) is enthralling, complex and expertly enacted. Ali Shepard is superb as his girlfriend, Anita, full of feistiness, poise and resolution, yet also empathetic and sympathetic to the young lovers. Each brings excellent energy and expertise to their dancing and physicality.