(L-R) Natalie Chus, Jocasta Almgill, Frances Dee & Bree Smith. Image by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard
West Side Story ranks as one of the most popular musicals of all time and continues to delight audiences sixty years after its Broadway debut. Leonard Bernstein’s score remains as timeless as ever, and Arthur Laurents’ storyline, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transposed to gang-ridden 1950’s America, also remains hauntingly relevant.However, the production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre is the first ever not to feature Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, having been adapted for the theatre’s in-the-round configuration by Aletta Collins.
The re-imagined production – directed by Sarah Frankcom and mixed by associate sound designer, Owen Lewis – has received rave reviews from every quarter and for just about every aspect, including the superb sound which was designed by Richard Brooker and delivered by KV2 Audio.
“As a theatre, the Manchester Royal Exchange is brilliant because it’s so intimate,” said Brooker. “There are 700 seats, but not one is further than 9m away from the stage, so it’s a wonderful experience for audiences. However, it’s a very challenging venue in which to deliver good sound, especially for a musical, and particularly when the majority of the audience already knows every word and every note of every song!”
Nevertheless, Brooker clearly got it right as the reviews proved, with his design receiving specific accolades from the Guardian, the Times and Mancunian Matters amongst others. Indeed, the show has proved so popular that, for the first time in over 40 years, it will be coming back for a second run in 2020.
Brooker has been using KV2 Audio loudspeakers almost exclusively since 2013 and had absolutely no hesitation in specifying KV2 for West Side Story. “I simply can’t imagine how I could have achieved the same results using anything else,” he said, shrugging.
“One of the biggest issues in the Royal Exchange is that you’re extremely limited as to where you can put speakers, so as a designer it helps to know that the tools at your disposal are the very best and that you’re used to using them.”
Brooker’s design is based on concentric rings of loudspeakers to serve each of the 3 tiers of seats that are divided into 7 separate blocks all the way around the stage. There are 14 front fills sunk around the edge of the stage floor, while the main vocal system, comprised of 7 x KV2 Audio EX10 compact, high-output, full range active loudspeakers, is flown in a ring above the stage. 41 vocal delay speakers form part of the concentric rings to supplement the frontfills and main EX10 vocal ring.
“The EX10s are phenomenal speakers,” declared Brooker. “They deliver unbelievable vocal clarity and a true, natural sound. Combined with the front fill speakers, I can pull the image down to the stage to make it appear as though the sound is coming from the actors rather than the speakers above their heads.”
A ring of 7 compact, low-profile ESD25s flown above the EX10s serves the upper gallery. “Space restrictions meant that we couldn’t put in another ring of EX10s – we had to have something physically smaller, so the low-profile, wide dispersion ESD25s were perfect.”
“They have the same amazing vocal clarity and natural voice as the EX10s, so they are a great extension to the main system in a physically discreet format.”
In addition to the vocal system, Brooker specified a pair of EX10s in a L/R configuration for the band system. Interestingly, due to the in-the-round nature of the venue, the 11-piece orchestra is not located inside the theatre itself, but rather in a specially designed sound-proof booth in the foyer equipped with a video relay so that the musicians can see the stage and the cast can see the conductor.
“The band system is completely separate from the vocal system,” he explained. “We went for a L/R configuration as we decided that we’d like to have the sound of the band coming from somewhere other than the stage as is the case for the actors, and coming from a specific place, as if the band was in the theatre with the audience. The band system also acts as foldback on stage and avoids any nasty timing issues we may otherwise have encountered.”
As a complement to the main L/R system, Brooker has also provided for a comprehensive delay system based on the compact EX6 2-way active loudspeaker.
“EX6s are just another part of the amazing KV2 Audio toolbox – they deliver fantastic quality and power for such a little box, so they’re a perfect delay system for EX10.”
Brooker specified a total of 16 EX6s across the three levels of seating, supplemented by 6 wide-dispersion, under-balcony EX26s for the upper circle. Finally, a pair of EX2.5 dual 15-inch subwoofers flown up in the roof complete the design. “The result is a superbly rounded, powerful yet totally natural sound that enables the audience to lose themselves completely in the music and the atmosphere. I’m really proud of what we’ve all achieved here.”
Sorcha Steele, Head of Sound at the Manchester Royal Exchange and associate sound designer, is in full agreement. “Having worked with Richard Brooker on four previous productions here at the Royal Exchange, it’s been great to have the opportunity to build on the successes we’ve had with his system designs and take it another step further.”
“For all but one of the previous shows he had specified KV2 for the band system and we used our in-house system for the vocals, which worked well for us but on this occasion having the opportunity to use KV2 for both the band and vocals was quite exciting and I think it really has taken the sound for the production to another level.”
“In a space that can be very unforgiving with sound, having clarity in the vocals and definition in the music is hugely important, especially with the complex scores of West Side Story. KV2 Audio has been instrumental in being able to deliver that. It sits well in the space, moving between dialogue and musical numbers feels very natural and not overly processed. Overall, I think it has been a huge success and I look forward to the production returning to us again next year.”