STAGE: West Side Story – Joburg Theatre, Gauteng
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
EVERYTHING you have read or heard about young director Matthew Wild’s West Side Story is true – his original, gritty and quite stark, yet fabulous, reinterpretation of the classic story of love amid gang warfare is a triumph.
In fact let me stick my neck out even further and put it on record as one of the finest stage musicals I have seen worldwide, let alone in this country. It really is that good!
After winning awards and both press and public acclaim during its 2015 Cape season, the show has now been revived, with the same lead performers, for a season at Gauteng’s Joburg Theatre until March 5.
The money I spent driving up to attend a preview performance was worth every cent!
When Wild first approached the project for Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre in 2015 he wanted a fresh look at the musical.
He decided, with valuable input from late theatre designer Johan Engels, to underscore the universality of the popular story of doomed lovers by highlighting an abstract concrete metropolis, rather than the more colourful New York setting the show has always known.
He also, perhaps most notably, agreed with a relatively recent observation by Arthur Laurents, who created the book for the award-winning musical, that the show needed more realism and a sprucing up for a modern audience.
The result is that Wild and his team have created a West Side Story, retaining all the wonderful music and songs, that sets out to make the story of gang members more credible, ultimately more affecting, than it has been depicted before.
Purists will surely raise eyebrows over Wild choosing to dispense with Jerome Robbins’s iconic balletic athleticism, choreography so strongly associated with this musical. Instead Wild has had local choreographer Louisa Talbot provide what Wild labels, in the impressive programme notes, as “a tougher dance language”, albeit with nods to Robbins.
Surprised as I am to admit it, it all works very well, being a lot more in keeping with the show’s grittier realism.
Performances are out of the top drawer, with the ever-excellent Jonathan Roxmouth in good voice throughout as Tony, the former gang member who tries to prevent blood spilling between the rival Jets and Sharks gangs.
His mission intensifies when he falls in love, at a dance, with Puerto Rican dressmaker Maria. She is the sister of Sharks gang leader Bernardo (a striking, snarling Christopher Jaftha).
Tony and Maria’s affair, inevitably, leads to bloodshed and a moving finale … the story being, essentially, a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
A special mention, here, of Maria. Having recently won high praise for playing Maria, the singing nun, in Durban’s Playhouse Company’s festive season production of The Sound of Music, lovely Cape soprano Lynelle Kenned proves she is no flash in the pan.
What a voice !What a presence! What a find! Little wonder she took a Fleur du Cap award in 2015 for her performance in West Side Story.
Worth special mention, too, is 2002 Idols finalist Bianca Le Grange, a constant joy as the fiesty Anita, Maria’s co-worker and the girlfriend of Bernardo. Le Grange is in strong voice and no mean dancer, either, as she proves in the exuberant America routine.
Also a standout among the 40-member cast is Stephen Jubber (Rooster in the recent, touring Annie) as Riff, Tony’s volatile best friend and leader of the Jets gang; while Craig Urbani – fresh from playing a dashing Captain von Trapp in the The Sound of Music in Durban – adds energy and authenticity to the smaller role of neighbourhood cop Schrank.
For all the wonderful talent on parade – and there is a lot! – it’s the sheer overall magic of the presentation, Wild’s clever and inspired direction, and, perhaps most notable of all, the power and glory of the set and its surprises, that most beguile.
The set, for the record, comprises 5 800kg of aluminium, 10 785 kg of steel, 4 500 bolts and involved 4 900 man hours to realise. It is an awesome spectacle which, designed by Conor Murphy ( based on Engels’s original concept), is deceptive in its simplicity, with surprise glide-in, slide-up, push-through components, dominated by towering steel staircase structures.
Lighting, too, deserves mention. Joshua Cutts has created many memorable moments, not least a breathtaking scene involving hundreds of bulbs that flicker from pale-gold to scorching white, adding fire and intensity to another wow moment, the scene in which Tony and Maria share their first kiss and sing Tonight.
The show features a full philharmonic orchestra, conducted by musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder , and they do wonders with Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent score that includes iconic songs such as Something’s Coming, Somewhere and I Feel Pretty, all, of course, with lyrics by the inimitable Stephen Sondheim.
Wild – also the talent behind the award-winning The Rocky Horror Show starring Brendan van Rhyn, and director of this year’s Cape Town must-see, Funny Girl – has found, in me, a devoted new fan.
Kudos to all involved in his terrific production – and whatever you do, do not miss it!
Tickets are now on sale at 021 461 4554, Computicket, 086 1915 8000 or from the Joburg Theatre directly. Given the anticipation about this stellar musical and how the Cape Town season sold out, advance booking is highly recommended.