West Side StoryThe songs of West Side Story have a way of getting into your head and staying there for decades.
This gritty show about love, life and death in the gangs of New York bubbles over with some of the most memorable songs ever penned for a musical. The music by Leonard Bernstein is sublime and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim range from rousing to wittily clever to the utterly heartbreaking ‘Somewhere’.
Did I have high expectations for the Fugard Theatre’s version that’s now running at the Joburg Theatre? Of course I did, the very highest.
The story is the timeless Romeo and Juliette classic of boy and girl falling in love across racial boundaries. Tony, who’s trying to shake off his allegiance to the Jets, falls in love with Maria, whose brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks.
It’s a gloriously lavish production, with a cast of 40 and a full orchestra led by musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder.
But what’s problematic for me – and possibly anyone else with dodgy eyesight – is that director Matthew Wild has taken this marvelously enormous stage and shoved much of the action right at the back of it. The dance hall scene and the final scene are both some distance away, leaving an expanse of emptiness that made me feel unhappily detached from the performance.
It stars the ubiquitous Jonathan Roxmouth as Tony, and initially he seemed stilted, as if he’s holding his emotions in check. Then he starts to sing, and is back on firm territory with his beautiful voice commanding the stage.
Yet it’s Lynelle Kenned as Maria who really flies, with an exquisite voice blessed with operatic qualities and a fresh energy that brings this girl exploring love into vivacious life. The most memorable scene has Kenned and Roxmouth singing a duet on a grimy fire escape, made beautiful by a surrounding canopy of glittering stars as their voices thrill in unison.
Christopher Jaftha and Stephen Jubber as opposing gang leaders Bernado and Riff are both excellent, with their coiled menace and vibrant moves. They excel in some lovely stylised fighting scenes that are an acrobatic dance as much as a battle.
Another highlight is the song Gee, Officer Krupke, with the inert body of the dazed policeman (Brendan Murray) hefted around like a ragdoll by the gang as they sing of being depraved because they’re deprived. Such smart lyrics, and such a fun presentation.
The set design by Conor Murphy almost steals the show, however, winning applause for its ingenious features. Tenement block stairwells slide in and out, and a whole sewing workshop eases into place. Doc’s drug store emerges from a subterranean hideaway to create a spacious double level stage, and the turntable is also used to great effect in a dance scene.
The costumes are excellent, keeping the girly flounces for the dances but with a grungier look for the gangs to make it less dated. Moody lighting conjures up a foreboding atmosphere on the mean streets, which are New York in theory, but anonymous enough to be anywhere.
There’s plenty of exuberant movement, the captivating storyline and the perfect music, yet a niggling awareness that I wasn’t as in love with it as I’d hoped to be.
While the Jets and the Sharks still fight with fists or knives rather than the guns of today’s thugs, the story itself will always be relevant. Today more than ever, as US President Donald Trump takes insane actions to keep ‘bad hombres’ out. There are always bad hombres on all sides, and West Side Story is a pretty musical portent of more real life rumbles ahead.
West Side Story runs at the Joburg Theatre until March 5.
Photos by Daniel Rutland Manners and Helena Fagan