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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Sister Act’s nuns are too dumbed down for their own good

That's her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns () Photograph by Mariola Biela.

That’s her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

Take an ensemble of the best voices in the business right now. Befrock them in an array of habits and foreground the stage musical based on the eponymous film which saw Whoopi Goldberg’s rise to popularity in the early 1990s, and what do you get? Sister Act is one of those musicals mooted as a must-see and a block buster, but the final product reeks of 1990s flaws in patronising and overwhelmingly silly dialogue and humour which causes it to drag its feet, particularly in the first half. On paper it is too good to be true – and it is.

But if you’ve made it so far, stay for the second half, because this unashamedly feel good bit of musical theatre gets so warmly into its stride that it whisks the rest of the night away and will leave you with a grin on your face.

The question that might remain in your head is do stage musicals with this amount of pizzazz and energy really have to be so very dumb? The humour in this more than 20-year-old work is clunking and unfunny, revealing the characters as so grotesquely simple it hurts. If you think of the dialogue characterising works like The Sound of Music or Chicago – as two very different productions in this genre – you get an understanding of their universalism and timelessness through the impeccable sense of wisdom and dignity applied in the development of each character: the lowest-common-denominator humour in Sister Act arguably is the element which causes it to stumble as a production.

It’s the tale of a young black female singer who finds herself unwittingly vulnerable to crooks and bad men. A nearby church is in dire financial straits and agrees to hide her. Her musical arranging skills, maverick personality and flippant disregard for church rules win the day, enabling the church to gain the kind of street cred that will keep it relevant. It’s numbingly predictable, but tightly woven, in terms of nuances and several ‘wow’ moments, in the set, bringing together the mystery and majesty of implied church architecture with all its arches and stained glass windows intact.

The work features stand out performances by Candida Mosoma as the lead, Deloris; Kate Normington as the Mother Superior and Keith Smith as the monsignor, but it is the combination of the stark costumes and a lot of the ensemble work that keep its professionalism sizzling. Also, significantly, the male ensemble collaborations, featuring the bad guys and the cops, is worthy of mention: a level of totally fabulous sonority and balance is evoked by the guys in this girl-power story.

Sister Act makes for a rambunctious but safe evening’s entertainment. All the elements are in place and are handled with due colour, sound and light, but there’s an element of fire, a point of performative glory that the work as a whole lacks.

  • Sister Act, based on the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. It is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Sarah Roberts (costumes), Declan Randall (set), Trevor Peters (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography) and is performed by Bjorn Blignaut, Caroline Borole, Vanessa Brierley, Caitlin Clerk, Anne-Marie Clulow, Elizca Coetzer, Judy Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Trudy Fredericks, Germandt Geldenhuys, Zane Gillion, Clive Gilson, Themba January, Dolly Louw, Mervin Marvey, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Kate Normington, Dean Roberts, Brenda Sakellarides, Andrea Shine, Shelly Simon, Nqobile Sipamla, Keith Smith, Lebo Toko, Carmen Tromp, LJ Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe and Zano. It performs at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 15. Call 0861670670 or visit com