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


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

For the love of a Frog. And a Toad.

Dance of the secret rake: Toad (Devon Flemmer) and Frog (Teekay Baloyi) capture the moment. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

Dance of the secret rake: Toad (Devon Flemmer) and Frog (Teekay Baloyi) capture the moment. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

A tonic replete with the heady charm of the 1920s, A Year with Frog and Toad is a fabulous paean to the value of friendship that will leave you with a smile in your heart, whoever you are.

It’s a simple concatenation of Arnold Lobel’s sweet little stories, featuring a go-getting young frog (Teekay Baloyi), and his less outgoing but no less delightful friend, a toad (Devon Flemmer) blending into the mix a snail, a couple of mice, some birds and a turtle, to name but a few of the creatures that give this show voice and life, through the weather and changing currents of a year. The trajectory of the material is clear enough to wrap a three-year-old in its fabulousness, but succinct and deep enough to bring tears of happiness in a pensioner: if you don’t have a child to accompany you, it’s not a handicap: this show touches everyone.

We’ve seen Devon Flemmer in a number of National Children’s Theatre productions over the past few years. He’s a seriously focused and extremely competent young performer, but arguably has soundly come into his own in this role, lending Toad so many utterly endearing qualities, such a powerful singing voice, and so earnest an understanding of manner and ‘toadhood’ that he enables the character a dignity which is almost bigger than its scripted role. His performance alone is sufficient justification for coming to Parktown.

Flemmer is supported by a delicious cast, with a sung and danced performance that is astutely constructed, attesting  to not only the work of the heavy weights in the creative team, but also to the value of the discipline, that sings to a dynamic evoking a late 1920s style, with some flagrant and jazzy digressions from a humble snail/wannabe postman (JP Rossouw) and a curious and hilarious turtle (Didintle Khunou).

The 1920s frenetic theme is echoed into the costumes, which never stoop to anthropomorphism – the kind of thing that sees adult performers in big fluffy onesies with tails and ears – but instead offers thoughtful, elegant and quirky solutions to the idea of ‘birdhood’ or ‘snailhood’ through dress metaphor that will make you laugh with recognition, but be aware of the fashions of a world that cherished the charleston, complete with feather boas and cheesecutter hats and garishly striped blazers, without being obnoxiously camp or foolish.

The honed touch of set designer Stan Knight holds the work irrevocably together. With a focal point that rests diagonally across the space, between the homes of the two friends, a parallel set is cast, and balanced with the tales told, and the satisfying splaying of music and dance, lyrics and quirks.

The intimacy of the theatre is embraced with a snugness which does, at times become too tight, however: the work features both strobe lights and theatrical fog, and an interface between performers and audience which is at times too close: this can challenge your physical or emotional comfort in the audience, depending on where you sit.

A Year with Frog and Toad is the kind of production that harks back to a time when earnest moment was lent to small gestures, where manners mattered and behaviour made a difference. Frog’s friendship with Toad is about forgiveness and harmony as much as it is about patience and values, ghost tales and eating too many cookies. With more cheekiness than the stultifying saccharine of arguably better known stories to South African children, Frog and Toad echoes the love AA Milne’s Pooh bear has for his friend Piglet, and contains a number of truths which skirt cliché in touching you deeply.

  • A Year with Frog and Toad is directed by Francois Theron, based on the eponymous Broadway musical and the series of children’s books by Arnold Lobel published in the 1970s. It is designed by Drew Rienstra and Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Stan Knight (set and lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Devon Flemmer, Didintle Khunou, Khanyisile Nhlapho and JP Rossouw, and performs at the National Children’s Theatre, Parktown until October 11. Call 011-484-1584 or visit org.za