‘West Side Story’ simply pulsates with high energy
MOST people who grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s will be familiar with the catchy songs of West Side Story – Maria; I Feel Pretty; America; they were the songs I grew up with and their timeless quality still evoke a strong sense of nostalgia.
There have been dozens of versions of this tragic-romance or romantic tragedy since it was first performed in 1957, as a Broadway musical and then as a hit movie in 1961. Locally, rave reviews have followed the show since Eric Abraham and the Fugard Theatre put in on the boards.
Now at the Artscape, the latest version is a triumph, a winner pulsating with high energy.
And what’s not to love about a show that has an unforgettable score and follows the age-old tale of Romeo and Juliet, cast as modern-day lovers in a celebration of song, dance, colour and superb acting that is engaging, compelling, laced with humour and offers more than a sprinkling of good old-fashioned moral messages.
The show immerses from the start, as stark sets of stairwells leading to and from massive grey tenements in a quadrangle morph into a hive of activity.
The two gangs take to the streets and tensions between the white American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks (the modern-day Montagues and Capulets) erupt into a brawl.
Dance and movement are perfectly synchronised, as the young men move like greased lightning across the stage, demonstrating their antipathy for the opposing side.
The antipathy heightens as Maria, sister of Sharks leader Bernardo and Tony, former founder of the Jets, fall in love.
Lynelle Kenned shines as the sweet-faced Maria to Kevin Hack’s gentle, but strong Tony. The pair play against each other seamlessly in the duets and the scenes that follow, as their love intensifies, but is dogged by their impossibly irreconcilable backgrounds.
Fleur du Cap winner and talented soprano Kenned shows off her mellifluous and honeyed voice, as the pair launch the tender duet Maria, with Hack demonstrating his smooth tones as a highly-skilled singer.
It’s just the beginning and a harbinger of the many extraordinary moments to come in this successful show.
Whether it’s the powerful renditions of the gang scenes; the heart-rending moments of the ill-fated love or the tragic scenes of the Jets showing they are the sorrowful products of their environments – poverty, violence, abuse, a lack of belonging – the scenes are magnificently evoked and powerfully choreographed.
Bianca Le Grange acts out a powerful, but endearing Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, who is wellplayed as the “don’t-mess-with-me” leader of the Sharks.
The set is magnificent, cleverly avoiding any New York landmarks to give it a kind of universal setting, but displaying the gritty reality of the surroundings with the sombre greyness of the multistorey tenements.
It’s the hundreds of lights of a metropolis that provides the necessary foil to the monochromatic background, as do the colours of the amazing costumes and materials that emerge from the dressmakers shop.
Full marks to Louisa Talbot for the choreography; Conor Murphy for the set design (based on a concept by Johann Engels) Birrie le Roux who astounds with costume design and Matthew Wiid for the direction.
Eric Abraham is producer and Daniel Galloway co-producer.
West Side Story may be a story that has tragic proportions, but it’s ultimately the kind of show that uplifts and offers grand optimism. That age-old saying of “rising against the odds” is demonstrated here in a multitude of ways.
Gritty as it may be, its humour and ebullience and the message it plays out in the finale, show we can all rise above our circumstances to triumph in togetherness.
West Side Story is at Artscape until April 15.