Hold my hand and we’re half way there: West Side Story’s unequivocal victory

westsidestory

LOVE in the face of turf wars. Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Maria (Lynnelle Kenned). Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT TAKES SPECIAL skill to tease open one of theatre and literature’s greatest works and to reinvent it. It  takes even more special skill and creative bravery to be able to produce a work on stage that has been produced on myriads of other stages all over the world and in various mediums, and to make it fresh. Producers Eric Abraham and Daniel Galloway, for the Fugard Theatre, are to be congratulated on the unequivocal victory they have achieved with West Side Story.

Premised on the unadulterated beauty of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this tale of poverty and crime, love and hate in a post-Second World War, post Depression context on the West Side of New York, touches all the keystones that are triggers to the kind of clichés that give clichés their schmaltzy reputation, but with a set which is at once dazzling and subtle, some extraordinary stand-out performances and a deeply honed and polished reflection of violence and social context, to say nothing of sheer brilliance in design, it’s up there among the best theatre experiences in this city, of the decade.

It begins, however, with some unnecessary and uneasy gimmickry in the resonance between lighting and music and the spirit of the work doesn’t grab you by the throat from the work’s first bars of music, or first steps of dance, as you may anticipate.  The scene is cast with bland clarity, as the two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, strut their stuff and tease their respective foes into internecine violence. The women in the bridal factory tend to be shrieky. But as the work unfolds, the incredible crescendo it achieves in balancing narrative with design, showcasing Jonathan Roxmouth opposite Lynnelle Kenned with their devastatingly fine voices in the leads, sweeps you away, heart first and not only do you forgive the opening blandness, but you forget it, too.

Making incredibly sophisticated use of the horizontal in the massive concrete-evocative set, an understanding of space and time but also depth of focus is compelling, and with this geometry, something completely extraordinary happens. The tale is a predictable one and you know how it ends, and the songs, from Maria and Tonight, to I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are so well known, they punctuate the piece with familiarity.

But what this director and his enormous cast have achieved here is an offering of a tale which will trigger your tears in spite of everything: the fierce love between Maria and Tony, which flies in the face of their respective gangs’ ideologies is handled with a sincerity and a flamboyance that is not just about the spectacle or the drama. It’s rich with life and fraught with texture. It’s not only about gritty New York values, and a self-conscious use of 1950s slang and dance sequences. It’s something that is lifted to the level of the timeless universal.

Kenned is relatively new on Johannesburg’s stages and slight of build, but supremely skilled vocally, she embraces the whole stage and the whole audience with her presence. Even whilst she is climbing scaffolding or in the scene but off central focus, your eyes rest on her. There’s a demureness and an innocence that evokes Olivia Hussey’s 1968 portrayal of Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s version of the Shakespeare classic, and a brassiness which gives her soul. But when calamity strikes and death happens, that torsion between her and her lover and her brother is palpable. It’s a moment you won’t readily forget.

If you see one musical this year in Johannesburg: this is it.

  • West Side Story is based on an idea by Jerome Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents and directed by Matthew Wild. It is designed by Leonard Bernstein (composition), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins, Louisa Talbot and Richard Lothian (choreography), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sandar (musical direction), Conor Murphy, Johan Engels, Carl Gersbach, Nadine Minnaar and Gerhard Morkel (set), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Joshua Cutts (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Grant Almirall, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Daniel Buys, Caitlin Clerk, Elzanne Crause, Keaton Ditchfield, Adrian Galley, Nurit Graff, Reg Hart, Natasha Hess, Christopher Jaftha, Stephen Jubber, Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange, Richard Lothian, Carlo McFarlane, Ipeleng Merafe, Sven-Eric Müller, Kirsten Murphy Rossiter, Brendan Murray, Sibusiso Mxosana, LJ Neilson, Thami Njoko, Chloe Perling, Sabelo Radebe, JP Rossouw, Jonathan Roxmouth, Zolani Shangase, Gemma Trehearn, Craig Urbani, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Filipa van Eck, Tamryn van Houten, Tevin Weiner, Duane Williams and Kristin Wilson. The orchestra comprises Elsabe Laubscher (coordinator), Serge Cuca, Elbe Henkins, Ivo Ivanov, Daline Wilson, Dorota Swart, Song Ha Choi, Evert van Niekerk, Katrien Jooster, Ane van Staaden, Viara and Adrie Naude (violin); Carel Henn, Susan Mouton, Maureen Marler and Gerrit Koorsen (cello); Christi Swanepoel (double bass); Helen Vosloo, Anna Maria Muller and Handri Loots (flute); David Sendef and Donny Bouwer (trumpet); Siya Charles (trombone); Shanon Armer (horn); Brahm Henkins (bassoon); Gerben Grooten (percussion); and Chrisa Smit, Carl Ashford and James Green (reeds), conducted by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sander. The band comprises Dawid Bowehoff, Matthew Foster, James Lombard, Justin Carter and Aldert du Toit. It is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex, Braamfontein, until March 5. Call 011 877 6800 or visit www.joburtheatre.com
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