WEST SIDE STORY. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Matthew Wild. Musical Director: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Choreographer: Louisa Talbot. Resident Choreographer: Grant van Ster. With Lynelle Kenned, Kevin Hack, Bianca Le Grange, Stephen Jubber, Sven-Eric Muller, Craig Urbani, Richard Lothian, Daniel Richards, James Borthwick, Michael Fullard, Shaun Oelf, Kirsty Ndawo and more. Artscape.

'West Side Story'

KAREN RUTTER reviews

It was impressive the first time around, and now it’s even better. The Fugard’s production of West Side Story originally opened in Cape Town in the winter of 2015, and wowed audiences with its feisty, fresh cast, its slick delivery, and its oh-so-awesome set.

A packed season in the Mother City was followed by a successful Joburg run (and a Fleur du Cap award for Best Actress in a Musical for Lynelle Kenned), with five star reviews from the critics.

And now it’s back where it all started. With a few tweaks to the line-up and choreography, but otherwise pretty much the same energy pumping throughout. Which has been honed by hours of performance experience. Hence – a production which possibly exceeds its debut outing.

A modern tragedy

West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but set in New York circa the 1950s. The houses of Montague and Capulet are replaced by two warring teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, an animosity which is sustained by ethnic antagonism (the Sharks are from Puerto Rico, the Jets are a white posse). Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang’s leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. It’s a slice of magic within the mayhem of intolerance. But it’s to be a bitter-sweet and ultimately tragic love affair, with nobody winning in the end.

'West Side Story'

Director Matthew Wild once again marshals an extraordinary cast of triple threats into action, maintaining a tight yet nuanced pace throughout, while musical director/conductor Charl-Johan Lingenfelder keeps the melodic engine of the production smoothly on track. The stage design (by Conor Murphy, based on a concept by the late Johan Engels) is almost a character in itself, a massive Lego set of interlocking pieces, each a scene on its own (a factor, a balcony, a drugstore den, a New York street). Coupled with some whimsical touches (the police car is cool, as were the stars that twinkled during the famous duo “Tonight”), it makes for a memorable setting.

Ultimately, however, it’s the cast which make this production next level – they’re all gems, every one of them. From the swagger of the Jets and Sharks boys to the flash of the gangsta girls, the menace of the cops to the hope of the young lovers, the cast sustain an energy that is mesmerising and wholly engaging. The ensemble pieces are compact and eye-catching, whether a dramatic fight scene or a comedic factory send-up. And the solo performances are top notch: it’s very easy to see why Lynelle Kenned won the FdC award for her Maria, so beautifully does she inhabit this role. Likewise, Stephen Jubber as Riff and Bianca La Grange as Anita reprise their parts with style and flair. Craig Urbani brings a muscular antagonism to his Schrank, and Richard Lothian convincingly plays a hapless Officer Krupke. American actor Kevin Hack as Tony is a newcomer to this season, and his presence is clearly competent and very nicely nuanced at times. But it is the sinuous Daniel Mpilo Richards in his role as gang leader Bernado who has the best moves, and it’s great to see him take over this part with such assurance.

'West Side Story'

Groundbreaking

When West Side Story came out it was regarded as groundbreaking for its time – and it’s fair to say its narrative is as pertinent as ever. With its jazzy, dark score counterbalanced with numbers that have become famous (“America”, “I Feel Pretty” etc), the music forms a complex bedrock to a contemporary take on an age-old tale of love and difference, tragedy and intolerance. And this latest incarnation by the Fugard team does it full justice – once again.

What: West Side Story

Where and when: Artscape Opera House from 7 March to 22 April 2018

Book: 021 421 7695, Computicket on 0861 915 8000 and the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554

WS