Last night I had the absolute privilege of attending the official opening night of the South African version of West Side Story. This musical has already completed a successful run in Cape Town and now it is finally Jozi’s chance to witness this master piece. However, I feel, that in order to truly appreciate this show one needs to understand the background from which it stems. For those of you who don’t know, West Side Story is based on the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet is a story about forbidden love and everything that comes along with it. The play in itself is not a complicated storyline however as I watched the musical unfold last night I was left shocked at how relevant and pertinent this story still is today.
The narrative is about two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, who despise one another and want sole ownership of the territory. As ‘Romeo and Juliet’ then goes, one of the Jets falls in love with a young Shark. But here is the Twist, the reason why the Jets dislike the Sharks to such an extent is because the Sharks are immigrants who have left Puerto Rico and are now living in America. The young girl, Maria, moved to America with her family and is now trying to make a life for herself. In doing so, she falls in love with Tony and this is where the trouble starts. I do not want to give away the entire story line but everything makes an appearance in this story- Death, love, commitment, immigration, hope. It is kind of all twisted together to create the most wonderful production.
Technically, this production is spot on. I am consistently impressed with the quality of South African talent. After every show I see, I always comment on the talent that is shown on stage. I admire actors and actresses for their unconditional bravery. Whether that be singing on stage, talking on stage, dancing on stage or whatever else they do on stage, their bravery to do so constantly impresses me. Lynelle Kenned who played the lead role, Maria, stole the show for me. Her voice is beautiful and her portrayal of Maria was so believable and yet it didn’t feel forced. I really enjoyed watching her on stage.
Another performance that stood out for me was Bianca Le Grange’s portrayal of Anita. The character of Anita is feisty, confident and loud however I felt Bianca brought a sense of calmness to the character. Anita goes through a lot during the narrative of the production and the way Bianca played the ups and downs was really wonderful. She showed the audience both strength and vulnerability when needed. Her voice, by the way, out of this world!
I am an art department baby. In the final year of my degree I specialized in Special Effects makeup. This is why I loved the parts of the production that included SFX. The show made use of false blood which can sometimes loose effect on stage. Having said this, the SFX that was used in this production was just right! It was bright enough to make an impact but not in your face that it looked false. I haven’t seen these kind of effects used on stage before and I must say, it really added a whole new side to the show.
West Side Story is not your typical ‘glitzy’ musical. There is a roughness and a strength to the musical that feels almost male driven. However, since the show is about forbidden love, the female energy as well as the male energy provide a wonderful contradiction that seems to balance out. The boys are violence driven, they want to fight. Each side wants to be the winner but, I felt, that the woman allowed me to relate even more to the story. The men might be fighting for dominance but the woman are fighting to create a liberating life for themselves, with their men by their sides of course. I really enjoyed watching this dynamic be played out on stage.
West Side Story is the type of musical that feeds my theater obsession. Reason being that this show explores more than an over the top dance sequence. It shows off life. It shows the audience what they are experiencing and the audience responds. And it is this transaction between audience and cast that fascinates me. On stage last night I watched actors pretend to be characters that were going through situations but what I took from it was so much more. Good old Shakespeare knew what he was talking about!
Congratulations to the entire team that put together this musical, it was well worth the wait.
West Side Story is on at the Joburg Theater until the 5th of March, DO NOT MISS THIS ONE!