I managed to secure some of the last seats in the house for West Side Story at the Artscape Opera House on Saturday August 8. The balcony was all that was left. I was only a little disappointed because a seat upstairs gives such a great view of the group pieces, in this case two gangs of hot young dancers play-fighting with choreography by Louisa Talbot under the direction of Matthew Wild. What’s not to like?
Being a little way back also helps me not fall in love with one performer and follow them around the stage to the detriment of the others, in this case, so many others in a large and talented cast of 40.
The story, inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is set in the Upper West Side in New York in the Fifties. The Jets, a caucasian gang, and the Sharks, Puerto Ricans or ‘PRs’, are engaged in a turf war. A fragile balance is upset when Tony, a member of the Jets and the best friend of its leader Riff, falls for Maria, sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Cue hatred and violence, represented on stage as breathtaking, high tempo dance scenes.
Seamless mood changes are achieved by deft set changes between cavernous, clunky, concrete landscapes and intimate love scenes on a balcony or in the sewing factory where Maria works.
About my special little stage crush for the night, I will admit to being a bit mechanical here. Lead contenders in Eric Abraham’s West Side Story had to be Maria (Lynelle Kenned), so sweet and winsome until she opened her mouth and filled the auditorium with soaring vocals, and the sexy Anita (Bianca le Grange, pictured), who is Bernardo’s girlfriend. Le Grange, a South African sweetheart of an order I have heard compared with the way America adored Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the original film version of West Side Story, is one of those performers who doesn’t need a spotlight, her performance is already illuminated by her own fiery red circle of hotness.
But this time the crush award went to … [add drumroll here please] … the stage itself: the mechanics of a three-story set being moved seamlessly on and off stage; the lighting – sometimes knock-out sparkly, other times delightfully subtle; the stage that seemed to go on forever. (I really did lean over the balcony to check if they had fitted in more than a few rows of seats downstairs.) Applause to Conor Murphy for the set design and Joshua Cutts for lighting design.
The press release was bang on when it said that an all-local cast breathes new life into this Fugard Theatre production of the musical masterpiece, but it is surely a good thing that any temptation to localise the storyline was resisted. It is clear how relevant the story is, even when delivered in (very well done) American and Latin accents. The fact that is this is clearly set in a different time and place gives extra power and meaning to the relevance to today and our own neighbourhood.
This fabulous, grand-scale production of West Side Story, the hit musical by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, based on an original conception of Jerome Robbins, is on at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until August 23.