Preview: Bernstein’s Centenary performance by oldest student society at Portsmouth University

In the 100th anniversary year of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, and sixty years after it debuted on Broadway, a show that has thrilled generations around the world is being staged by an all-student cast and crew in Portsmouth.

Bernstein was just three years old when the University of Portsmouth Dramatic & Musical Society (UPDMS) was formed, and it is thus the oldest such society in the south, with over 90 years of history staging shows for audiences in Portsmouth and beyond.

This year they’re raising their game significantly to stage West Side Story, a musical renowned for high-energy dancing, some of the most memorable songs in stage history and one of the biggest, most complex shows ever staged by any theatre group.

West Side Story was written 60 years ago by the world-renowned Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. A modernised re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in 1950s New York, West Side Story tells the story of two rival gangs – the Jets and the Sharks – who are fighting over territory on the streets of the West Side. After Tony, the ex-leader of the Jets, meets Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, at the highly-anticipated dance; it is love at first sight but all kinds of trouble ensues.

The 40 plus cast is made up of students from across the university, including those studying Law, Marine Biology and English Literature as well as Musical Theatre and Drama.

Originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is famous for its fizzing dance routines. The society’s performance is filled with new routines choreographed by four of the university’s Musical Theatre students – Eleanor Harvey, Jessica Lavis, Imogen Slade and Rosie Walton.

One stunningly put-together dance routine to look out for is ‘America’, where Anita tries to convince her friend Rosalia that living in America is more enjoyable than living in their native Puerto Rico.

These dance routines are paired with both tense and uplifting scenes produced by Jack Usherwood, a third year Musical Theatre student who hopes to go into the directing and creative side of theatre after graduating this year.

Jack, who has had an interest in music and theatre for ten years, said about the show that “West Side Story has been a completely new and thoroughly enjoyable challenge”. He also said that “this version of the musical will present the classic story in a different way to that staged before, with a twist on the famous ballet sequence”.

Jack’s artistic vision for the ballet sequence involves using set, lighting and actors to transcend the audience through the night in a way that allows them to see the peace of Tony and Maria while simultaneously understanding the conflict of the gangs in New York City.

The lead role of Maria is played by Sara Shuhaiber, first year Musical Theatre student from Kuwait, who said “I am so looking forward to playing such an iconic role on stage. I’ve been having a wonderful time rehearsing and am very excited to see how the show will turn out. I hope everyone will enjoy it as much as I enjoy being part of our brilliant cast!”

Cast members to look out for are Tony, played by Thomas Rogers, Riff, played by Bradley Curran, Bernardo, played by James Cronin and Anita, played by Zara Lackenby-Brown.

The show’s performances will be at 7:30pm on Thursday 8, Friday 9 and Saturday 10 March as well as a matinee performance at 2:30pm on the Saturday at the New Theatre Royal, Guildhall Walk. Tickets will cost £11-15 with £2 off for students.

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