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

Lost in the Wood

robinhood

DIRECTIONLESS and forlorn: Little John (Phumci Mncayi) and Friar Tuck (Desmond Dube), doing the traffic light jive in their bid to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

INDEED, THE SILLY season is already upon us. But silly is as silly does and when the volume and strobes in an auditorium are ramped up to deafen and blind an audience in order to compensate for a messy hodge-podge of a story featuring political- and market-related humour that is so tired you have to be seriously drunk to laugh, you can only despair. Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood the city’s highly punted pantomime for the year, takes silly to a new level of incompetence. It features so much self-indulgent clap-trap in its narrative flow, choice of music and ribaldry that not only does the story lose its way spectacularly, but it is also crushed under the weight of too many agendas.

With stand-out performances by Graham Hopkins as the evil villain Norman the Nasty Sheriff of Nottingham; Kate Normington in the role of an Irish geriatric fairy called Silly Sylviana, the Spirit of the Forest; Desmond Dube as Friar Tuck and the very talented Dale Scheepers as one of the hapless ‘babes in the wood’, Tokkel; it is not the performers or the choreographers who can be condemned. They do their best. They’re immensely skilled. But they’re working in a context which so lacks narrative definition that it feels as though anything goes. The work is an unsuccessful mashing together of a bunch of tales surrounding Robin Hood, the medieval activist who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that of Hansel and Gretel, two poor children condemned by a nasty step mother to die in the forest. Both these central classics are pinned to poverty, patronage politics and corruption rhetoric specific to the time in which we live, only it’s not funny.

Sadly the political shenanigans of the time have been so widely laughed at, analysed, criticised and condemned by all and sundry that the humour has begun to pall. And in this production in particular, it’s as subtle and nuanced as a sledge-hammer hitting a fly.

Where the two tales meet and why they’re pushed together is a mystery. Pantomime is traditionally such a complex and bawdy bit of burlesque to begin with, it’s not clear why this production needed even more frills than normal by taking on two stories at once.

The requisite over the top drag character is played by LJ Urbani with immensely tragic make-up, in the role of the wicked step-mother, but the moments of genuine hilarity are few and far between. If you can look beyond the arbitrary and irresponsible use of strobes, and forget that the sound is at such a decibel level that you feel the vibration in your teeth, there’s still not much left, particularly for the littlies. When this production is not messily presented in its narrative, it’s seriously scary or crudely cruel. Thus the entertainment value is substituted for a kind of sensory assault. If that’s your thing, you might love it. When audiences of large scale musicals shout hysterically on cue at every drum roll, it’s either because they think they should, or because they’re crying about the money they’ve just spent so badly. In terms of big shows fitting the family entertainment bill for the end of year treat, this one certainly doesn’t cut it.

  • Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood is written and directed by Janice Honeyman. Featuring design by Graham McLusky (lighting), Rowan Bakker (musical director), Richard Smith (sound), Bronwyn Lovegrove (costume co-ordinator), Nicol Sheraton (choreographer), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Izak Davel, Desmond Dube, Darius Engelbrecht, Clive Gilson, Nurit Graff, Kyra Green, Graham Hopkins, Dirk Joubert, Dolly Louw, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Bongi Mthombeni, Tshepo Ncokoane, Kate Normington, Carmen Pretorius, Dale Scheepers, LJ Urbani, Natasha Van Der Merwe, Maryanne Van Eyssen and Jaco Van Rensburg. It features a live band under the baton of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra on keyboards, comprised Deon Kruger (guitar), Kuba Silkiewicz (bass) and PW Van Der Walt (drums), and is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until December 30. Call 0861 670 670 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Feverish for that acid green sedan

saturday

GETTING on his boogie shoes: Daniel Buys as Tony Manero. Photograph courtesy http://jozistyle.joburg/saturday-night-fever/

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. It’s the mid-1970s in the boroughs of New York City, and white working class teenagers are dancing themselves wild because there’s nothing else to do to keep body and soul together, other than joining the church or getting a low-key boring job. The opening chords – both musically and visually – of the current production of Saturday Night Fever, punctuated with classic songs from the Bee Gees articulates this with aplomb.

But it is the inadequate balance of sound and vocals, some truly grotesque choreography and underwhelming performances that leaves the production wanting. And yes, it’s a dated show, reflecting petty racisms and sexisms of teenagers in America from 40 years ago, but it’s still deemed an iconic classic; had it been performed with slickness, its sense of anachronism would have been forgivable.

Further, if you’re a die-hard Bee Gees fan, you, too, might be disappointed while you wait to be swept away on a swathe of nostalgia by your favourite tunes penned and originally performed by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb in that distinctive falsetto.

Shows recreated in the last couple of years under the Broadway rubric, such as The Jersey Boys, which performed in South Africa in 2013, directed  by West Hyler, or Dream Girls of 2011, under the direction of Brittney Griffin, were performed in such a way that a song could freeze the moment, cause tears to fall and grown men and women to dance, weeping with love, in the aisles, whether or not they were alive when that music was fashionable. This doesn’t happen in this rendition of Saturday Night Fever. Rather, the music seems toned to be beneath the rather flimsy tale of the dreams of a poor boy to find the girl and the dance moves he deems his.

So, what happens is you struggle to hear the dialogue. The microphones attached to the performers’ foreheads force the sound out at such a level, that the words reverberate in the vast shell of the venue and smash against one another, becoming by and large inaudible. The dancing, with lots of really bizarre lifts and front splits for the women, is neither elegant nor erotic. Does it evoke the ethos of disco chaos of the seventies? Maybe. Certainly the costumes fit the era carefully, with the girls’ leotards and boys bell-bottoms – and of course the inimitable white three-piece suit which John Travolta brought into common fashion parlance with the 1977 film.

Daniel Buys in the starring role of Tony Manero has the voice and the moves, but lacks the sense of authority that a performer like Travolta exuded in this work. Instead, you find yourself trying to remember which one’s the one, when he and his buddies are out on the street.

Having said all of that, Matthew Berry playing the hapless Bobby C, one of Tony’s boys opposite Kiruna-Lind Devar as Pauline, Bobby C’s sweetheart arguably create several moments in this show which redeems the trek to the State Theatre. Beautifully cast, both of these young performers embrace the nuances of their – albeit tiny – roles, with fullness, sensitivity and dignity. They sing beautifully and liaise with conviction.

And then, there’s the acid-green 1970s sedan on the set, which is such a remarkably lovely idea that it should have been written about in the programme. Its elegant unpretentious curvaceousness, even the way in which its boot no longer closes properly, lends a tone of the time and flavour of the era which is irrepressible.

Indeed, the machinery of the set of the State Theatre is another element to this production which takes your breath away. Comprising numerous elevators in a variety of sizes, to say nothing of structures which move in on cue and on wheels, the world of the underbelly of New York is brought with all its dirty sham, drudgery and dreams, onto this stage in Pretoria in a manner so beautifully co-ordinated it rips your attention from the dynamics on stage. Here, you get to see inside Tony’s house, with his upstairs bedroom. There’s the park, and the apartment of Stephanie Mangano (Natasha van der Merwe) who grabs Tony by the libido, the bridge central to the tale and the disco venue itself.

Sadly, the State Theatre remains a conundrum for the regular theatre patron, and this old bastion of culture feels like a building site. The downstairs parking leaks and many bays are not accessible because the building’s in disrepair as a result of neglect. There are bits and chunks of the venue that are defined by shrill warnings to the public to stay away because they are unsafe, and huge electrical cords hang in disarray across the opera venue’s walls – a venue which remains as oblivious to safety needs of theatre venues as it was when it was first opened in 1981.

  • Saturday Night Fever based on the eponymous Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn was originally adapted for stage by Robert Sligwood and Bill Oaks. It is directed by Greg Homann with design by Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Weslee Swain Lauder (choreography), Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and TrevOr Peters (sound). It is performed by Joanna Abatzoglou, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Vanessa Brierly, Daniel Buys, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Londiwe Dhlomo, Keaton Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Devon Flemmer, Zane Gillion, Nurit Graff, Nathan Kruger, Sebe Leotlela, Clint Lesch, Brandon Lindsay, Phumi Mncayi, Bongi Mthombeni, Raquel Munn, L J Neilson, Mark Richardson, Phillip Schnetler, Craig Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe, Steven van Wyk and Charmaine Weir-Smith, and an off-stage band under the direction of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra: Donny Bouwer (trumpet), Jason Green (bass), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Dan Selsick (trombone), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Brian Smith (reeds), P W van der Walt (drums), Daline Wilson (violin), at the Opera Theatre in the State Theatre complex, Pretoria, until October 9. Call 012 392 4000 or visit statetheatre.co.za