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West Side Story

A Majesitc, Memorable, Magnificent Musical

By Louw Mulder

In the mid-nineties, in the middle of my high school career, I took a fieldtrip to the Sand du Plessis Theatre in Bloemfontein to see my first ever musical, West Side Story. Not only was I bowled over by the magic a stage production can enchant, but also the decisive factor was, that it made me fall in love. That is why West Side Story holds a very special place in my heart, and now, more than twenty years later, I got to see this musical again… with that memory of a 16 year old boy, fresh in my mind.

The Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story

The Jets and the Sharks

Because of this nostalgic connection to this production, the wait was long, the anticipation was mounting, and eventually, the night came where hundreds of theatre greats, celebrities and friends gathered at the Joburg Theatre, for the opening of the Fugard Theatre’s production of West Side Story. Normally, one shouldn’t expect too much, because it may set one up for extreme disappointment. But take it from me… Expect a lot.

After the performance, when I was comfortably relaxed at home, floating on the back flashes of the show I just saw, Facebook buzzed with reviews. Bryan Hill from the Teatro said “this production is daring, innovative and exciting and if you love musical theatre, you have to see it.” Acclaimed musical maestro Bryan Schimmel posted that “for the first time in many years, the stage of the Joburg Theatre is being graced with a ravishing, gut-punching, achingly beautiful production of one of the great benchmark pieces of musical theatre.”

Jonathan Roxmouth as Tony with Maria, played by Lynelle Kenned in West Side Story

Jonathan Roxmouth with Lynelle Kenned

To write a raving review of West Side Story, one should start with the music of Leonard Bernstein. Many label West Side Story as one of the best musicals ever written, and so experiencing it once again, that label is justified. The music is magical, powerful, and the band under the baton of Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, did the music score justice. The music alone tells the story. Bernstein melodically uses the brass instruments to build tension.  The woodwind section of the orchestra melts the scenes of the gangster rambles and love scenes into a perfectly harmonious theatre world. Soundtracks are great to relive the memories, but feeling the vibrations of the live orchestra, is just priceless.

Raving reviews of musicals, always include words like magical, phenomenal, and I might use them too in this review. The set, designed by Conor Murphy, was based on an original concept by Johan Engels. The set was big, life-size, and truly majestic. The size of the Joburg Theatre Stage was utilized to capacity, and the depth and size of that stage increased the element of the ‘wow’ that the show brings.

Stephen Jubber (centre) as Riff, with the Jets gang

The Jets gang

Joshua Cutts was in charge of designing the lighting. He used so many variations of lighting effects and strategies, which instantly takes the theatre goer to the place that the scene is intended to be. From cool white lighting shades to highlighting the brutality of the fighting scenes, to the warm white and golden effects during the love scenes; the illumination of every mix of lights, was spot on. One of the scenes that stood out for me, was the balcony scene between Tony and Maria, where literally hundreds of golden lights appeared, making every soul in the audience feel the magic of that moment.

In this specific production, I have to mention how impressed I was with the Choreography. Louisa Talbot, and especially Richard Lothian who choreographed the fight scenes, did a phenomenal job of combining the rebelliousness of American Gangsters, to the magical translation of Musical Theatre. The moves and steps were not in your face, nor overwhelmingly focused on one specific routine. The tension of fights, the flow of the scenes, even the transition from life to death, was something spectacular.

L-R: Chris Jaftha as Bernardo, Jonathan Roxmouth as Tony and Sven-Eric Muller as Diesel

Chris Jaftha, Jonathan Roxmouth and Sven-Eric Muller

Of course, effective choreography is nothing without skilled actors who actually have to carry it off. The cast was stellar, energetic, and visibly acted out all of the many moods in West Side Story. Both the men and women were all in it, and even though there are too many of them to mention individually, everyone is worthy of compliments. From Reg Hart and JP Rossouw showing off the definition of their deltoid muscles, Christopher Jaftha displaying a well-defined six-pack, to the humorous acting of Stephen Jubber and Richard Lotian, all elements of good theatre were displayed.

The leads, well, they were impressive, perfectly cast, and made West Side Story another memorable production. The experience and aura of Jonathan Roxmouth was yet again so profound, with his versatility, as I have said in so many reviews before, fitting the role like a glove. As big as the stage in this production is, Roxmouth’s presence fills not only this stage, but the whole theatre.

Lynelle Kenned as Maria with Tony played by Jonathan Roxmouth

Lynelle Kenned and Jonathan Roxmouth

But most impressive of the night, was Maria, played by Lynelle Kenned. This soprano will still become one of SA’s great theatre actresses. This small, petite little lady, played the innocence when necessary, the bold young woman standing up for herself in total contrast, while blowing the audience away with a very powerful voice, hitting every note as intended by the composer. If I am looking for another reason to go see this production, it will be to go see Kenned… oh, and because it is just a theatrical masterpiece with all the cliché’s eliminated.

I wish I could mention all the impressive moments, memorable roles of all the cast members and events that provided goosebump moments. But at the end, the Fugard Theatre’s Production of West Side Story, was worth the standing ovation it received. A must see… just like all the other theatre productions brought to life by local, South African talent.

This production of West Side Story will run at the Joburg Theatre till the 5th of March. Tickets are going fast, which goes without saying.

This review was edited by Bronwen Kerry from B Sharp Entertainment.  Photos by Helena Fagan

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