Who owns the streets? This question echoes through the genre-redefining West Side Story. The musical was hailed as a postmodern masterpiece when it was first staged in 1957, and the Fugard Theatre’s staging at the Artscape Theatre respects the piece’s cultural significance, while adding a particular theatrical flair to this gangway story of love, tragedy, and reformation.
After leaving Cape Town audiences enthralled in 2015, this sensational production is back and, if possible, even better than before. Part of the added magic of this current staging is the inclusion of Kevin Hack in the cast. Hack has performed in West Side Story more than 500 times internationally (and reached this milestone with his recent performances in South Africa). To say that he is well acquainted with every lyrical nuance of this production would clearly be an understatement.
Hack, as Tony, has a clear respect for and understanding of his craft. He knows how to romance a note, luring you in with a sense of sentimental naivety (which complements that of his innocent love-interest, Maria) before leaving you happily flabbergasted when he swops his soothing vocals for belting perfection. His performance is genuine and believable as he utters the portentous words, “I’ll live to regret this”, which ultimately bring his “womb to tomb, sperm to worm” pact with Riff (dynamically portrayed by Stephen Jubber) to fulfilment.
Lynelle Kenned, the Maria to Hack’s Tony, is pitch perfect as she sweeps you along on her whirlwind emotional journey. The on-stage chemistry she has with Hack gives her the space and performance support to further showcase her talent, taking her beyond the brilliance of her 2015 portrayal of Maria. Together Hack and Kenned are as luminous as the exquisite starlight that shines down upon the two lovers as they steal a perfect moment with their rendition of “Tonight”.
Daniel Mpilo Richards is captivating as Bernardo (the leader of the Sharks and Maria’s controlling brother who wants her to marry fellow gang member Chino) with his dangerous charm, while Logan Timbre matches him in bravado as the overzealous Action (the aspirant second-in-command of the rival Jets gang). Timbre’s interpretation of Action’s hot-headedness is just enough to tip the theatrical scales from hopeful “happily-ever-after” to “wartime tragedy”.
The romance and tragedy of the West Side Story saga is balanced out by bouts of rambunctious comedy and spirited dance-offs courtesy of both gangs, but predominantly thanks to the Jets numbers, such as “The Jets Song”, “Cool”, and “Officer Krupke”.
From the Sharks’ side of the turf war, Kirsty Ndawo (as Estella) definitely draws attention for all the right reasons with her dance flair, especially when the ladies of the Sharks perform the fan favourite, “America”. Bianca le Grange reclaims her role as the feisty Anita, girlfriend to Bernardo. She once again shows her character to be assertive but also vulnerable. Craig Urbani and James Borthwick, as Schrank and Doc respectively, also bring the necessary gravitas to stage with their portrayals, effectively personifying the sidelined yin and yang influence they impose on the feuding youngsters.
Although easily likened to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (for all the obvious reasons, including an acknowledgment by the original creative team), West Side Story is elevated beyond that formula. This musical was envisioned in a way that allows it to remain relevant as social commentary, as has proved true in Cape Town where gang wars still impact people’s daily lives. West Side Story brings an element of hope within the tragedy that the Bard’s doomed couple lacks. Tony and Maria’s story does not see love and feud result in the unfortunate death of both star-crossed lovers; West Side Story leaves one young person forever changed by the loss of a true love. The memory of the fallen gives the remaining lover the platform and courage to rise above culturally ingrained gang traditions and to look beyond the fear of ‘the other’. West Side Story, so viewed, is a musical that merges the feelings of love and sorrow to reveal the hope of transformative change rather than the entrapment of retribution.
Admittedly, in the same way Romeo & Juliet is not everyone’s choice of tragedy, West Side Story may not lure every theatre-lover to the realm of musical escapism. But, if you are a fan of musicals and like your romantic whimsy juxtaposed with a sense of realism, then this impressive production with its stellar cast, captivating live orchestra, and impressive set design is for you.
The Fugard Theatre’s staging of West Side Story is both evocative and enchanting. The same way a minute is not enough for Tony and Maria, seeing West Side Story only once may not be enough for most musical enthusiasts. Book your tickets through Computicket to see it before the run ends on 22 April 2018.