“West Side Story.”

By: Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim
Featuring: Jonathan Roxmouth, Filipa van Eck, Christopher Japhta, Bianca le Grange, Stephen Jubber, Daniel Buys, Sven-Eric Müller, Cameron Botha, Clive Gilson, LJ Neilson, Elzanne Crause, Kristin Wilson, Tamryn van Houten, Caitlin Clerk, Adrian Galley, Natasha Hess, Ipeleng Merafe, Sibusiso Mxosana, Gemma Trehearn, Nurit Graff
Directed by: Matthew Wild
Musical direction: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Choreography: Louisa Talbot
Produced by: Eric Abraham and the Fugard Theatre
18 February 2017, 15:00
The Mandela, Joburg Theatre

SPOILER ALERT!

And so I found myself at another “pleasure machine,” as Dan Rebellato (2011) refers to musicals. But, as was the case with “Sweeney Todd,” I was very much impressed with “West Side Story.” The text is an apt and intelligent adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, demonstrating once more just how open to reinterpretation the Bard’s texts are. In this adaptation, the conflict between Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets is transposed to the conflict between American and Puerto Rican gangs in 1950s New York. Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth), a member of the American gang, the Jets, falls in love with Maria (Filipa van Eck), the sister of Bernardo (Christopher Japhta), a member of the PRs, a Puerto Rican gang. Although the text is dated with regard to transgender issues (one of the songs insinuates that transgenderism is a form of insanity), it is still very relevant with regard to the relationship between masculinity and violence.

It always fascinates me when masculinity is portrayed through a medium such as musical theatre. This is, of course, a venture that can fail miserably if the actors are not convincingly masculine. I found Deon Opperman’s “Tree Aan!” (2011), which was supposed to depict the hyper masculine milieu of the border war, to be lacking in testosterone. In “West Side Story,” however, testosterone was splashing into the auditorium. The dance sequences, which represented fight scenes, were executed with energy and precision, resulting in a beautiful fusion of fictional chaos and actual discipline. The actors’ physique contributed effectively to establish that specific brand of American masculinity associated with Marlon Brando and James Dean. The marginalisation, objectification, and vulnerability of women within this masculine milieu was depicted in an effective, and rather disturbing, scene where Anita (Bianca le Grange), who is Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend, is assaulted when she attempts to deliver a message to Tony. Le Grange’s acting was superb in this scene as she portrayed the devastating frustration of a strong, independent woman whose agency is thwarted as she (literally) gets hit below the belt whenever she transgresses into the masculine sphere.

The grey, minimalist set was the perfect backdrop for these displays of masculinity. Different spaces are represented through different stage levels and by adding certain striking details to the grey space. Most of the action takes place in alleys and unknown urban spaces. The fire escapes of Maria’s home and Tony’s place of work move in from the wings, while Doc’s drug store appears from the stage floor. Because the latter is in a basement, the structure can start moving back into the stage floor while the characters are climbing the stairs to the surface of the street and the scene can thus continue uninterrupted by a décor shift. There is also a space upstage which can be concealed or, alternatively, reveal symbolic formations and performances, such as the song that is sung when Maria forgives Tony for killing her brother in a gang fight. The set and choreography therefore created a production that was visually impressive.

The main performers were all cast very well. Christopher Japhtha’s Bernardo was convincing as the protective older brother who is also the adversary to the hero. Jonathan Roxmouth’s Tony contrasted sharply with the other men: he is taller, his movements are not as animated, and his voice is deeper. Even from the back of the auditorium, the audience’s gaze rests comfortably on him from the first moment he enters the stage. Similarly, the other women loo,ked gaudy in their flashy outfits next to Maria, in her simple white dress, at the dance where she and Tony first meet. The hardest part of staging any adaptation of this basic plot is, surely, to convince the audience that the short-lived romance between the main characters is overwhelming enough to motivate the rest of the plot. In this production, the chemistry between Tony and Maria was palpable from the start: whenever they were together, it was as if the rest of the world disappeared. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the chemistry between Tony and Riff (Stephen Jubber). Although the text indicates, at various points, that these two characters share a special bond and are like brothers to each other, this was not evident from their body language. As a result, Tony’s avenging of Riff’s murder, by killing Bernardo, seems unmotivated.

Overall, “Westside Story” is a highly enjoyable production with enough meat on its bones to escape the pejorative adjectives usually attached to musicals.

References:

Rebellato, Dan. 2011. Does mega-musical boom mean theatre’s bust? The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2011/jan/18/mega-musicals-theatre-west-end (Accessed: 9 January 2017).

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