By BRUCE DENNILL
West Side Story / Directed by Matthew Wild / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
There’s a good deal of nostalgia involved in watching West Side Story. It’s unavoidable. It’s a 60-year-old stage musical based on a 420-year-old story (Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet) and immortalised in a 1961 film, dealing in themes – love, hate, fear, racism and xenophobia – that are as old as mankind.
Does that mean it’s dated? Yes and no. No in the sense that such universal subject matter is, by definition, all around us, all the time. But yes in that the way that the contextualised version of the story of rival New York gangs whose members think and act like Fifties teenagers is difficult to reconfigure as anything markedly different while maintaining the balance between Arthur Laurents’ story and the timeless music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Such are the challenges faced by anyone putting on any production of this musical, however tried and trusted their particular formula.
Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre’s version is performed on and around a massive, modern multi-storey set that underplays the story’s geographic location by removing recognisable landmarks and decorative details while maintaining the feel of a forbidding inner city. Huge steel staircases and vast expanses of grey wall are offset by Joshua Cutts’ inventive lighting design, which reinforces the starkness of some scenes while adding palpable warmth to others. Indeed, the visual highilight of the whole show is an incredible cascade of bare bulbs that descends from the flies as Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Maria (Lynelle Kenned) profess their undying love for each other outside her parents’ apartment. If you suffer from vertigo, the withdrawal of that set would be a good time to shut your eyes; otherwise it’s dazzling, one of those theatrical moments where “magical” is the only correct adjective to describe the moment.
The size of the set – particularly when the Joburg Theatre’s immense stage is taken into account, occasionally dwarfs the cast. This is not an issue when the action takes place downstage, as is the case for most of the more intimate interactions, but when the bulk of the cast lines up 50m back from the orchestra pit to perform the powerful Somewhere in Act Two, they’re a touch isolated from the audience, even though they have a bank of powerful lights behind them.
There are good perfomances from Christopher Jaftha as Bernardo, his muscled physique and fluid movement allowing him to deliver on the menace required as the leader of the Sharks, and Bianca Le Grange as Anita, with the actress’s rich vocals the foundation of her character’s considerable charisma. Stephen Jubber re-channels the manic energy he displayed recently as Rooster Hannigan in Annie to become a magnetic, live-wire Riff – the focal point of every scene he’s in. And Craig Urbani as Shrank, the detective, is a realistically belligerent, bullying presence.
To the leads: Kenned’s slim frame belies the power of her vocals, and she brings a classical Broadway or West End tone to her performances of One Hand, One Heart, I Feel Pretty and her other solos, while also suggesting the charm and steel that attracts Tony to her in the first place. As Tony, Roxmouth is both sensitive and authoritative, being as close to a voice of reason as the script offers. He too offers sublime vocal tone and phrasing, as well as the technique and discipline needed to overcome a cough that could not be dispelled towards the end of his performance of Maria on opening night.
Musically, the large ensemble moments, where two or three soloists are singing countermelodies over the layered harmonies of the rest of the cast, are superb, and musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder is to be commended on his tight control of the arrangements.
For the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this review and because or a couple of minor mistakes (a couple of forgotten lyric lines in Gee, Officer Krupke; a slightly awkward landing as a dancer is spun through the air by a partner), not everything sparks in this production. Its long-term value, though, will be interesting to guage, as it is the risky, ambitious vision of a new, relatively youthful force in South African theatre production, traditionally dominated by a handful of well-known impresarios who stick to single venues rather than touring their shows, and it’s already had a good measure of success before arriving in Johannesburg, where, demographically at least, there is a good chance of large audiences.
That the cat has been put among the pigeons as effectively as this has to be a good thing for South African theatre, and how the Fugard team will progress from here – and how their competitors will respond – will make for an intriguing narrative of their own.
Audiences, it’s up to you to keep the stakes high.