Johannesburg - Powerful choreography slugs it out with timeless musical numbers in this flawless all-South African revival of West Side Story. Produced by The Fugard’s Eric Abraham and his team, and fresh from a lauded run in Cape Town, it’s been a long wait for this show here in Gauteng. It was worth the wait and is more than worth the price of a ticket.
An updated version of the greatest teen love story of all time, Romeo and Juliet, this tale of rival gangs in 1950s New York makes a social statement that is as pertinent today as it was 70 years ago, when the show made its debut on Broadway. The Jets are a white teen gang who are permanently at war with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. In the age of Trumpkin, the destructive, ultimately deadly narrative of “us” versus “them” will resonate.
The politics aside, what director Matthew Wild, along with musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and choreographer Louisa Talbot, has done is polish this cast to the point of perfection. There isn’t a step out of time and there is no performance that outshines another. Jonathan Roxmouth, easily the best musical theatre actor in the game, is Tony, and Capetonian Lynelle Kenned is Maria.
Kenned is a performer I have not seen before – and I will make a point of seeing her again. What a voice. She and Roxmouth deliver a soaring romance worthy of Shakespeare, full of wonder, longing and loss. Their version of Tonight will make your heart swell.
The staging is spectacular. It is the kind of grand set that a space such as The Joburg Theatre was built to accommodate – constructed like a disused steelworks factory, the actors climb up and down ladders, and slabs of the theatre shift to reveal the wedding dress shop where Maria works, and the underground club where the Jets hang out.
A wall of lights blind the audience as Maria and Tony reach for each other for that all-important first kiss that sets in motion the tragedy to come.
Christopher Jaftha, who made his stage breakthrough in African Footprint, is Bernardo, and Bianca Le Grange, who began her journey on Idols, is Anita. Le Grange is magnificent, as is Jaftha. It is worth noting that when he rips off his shirt to rumble with the Jets, the opening-night audience gasped – a little extra to look forward to in a production that doesn’t need anything else to sell it to an appreciative audience.
The supporting cast is made up of familiar faces such as Craig Urbani, Carlo McFarlane, Daniel Buys (star of Jersey Boys, who leaves the cast to start rehearsals for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Grant Admirall (star of Singin’ in the Rain, who takes over from Buys on February 19).
West Side Story is one of the best musicals so far written, and it’s recreated by a well-seasoned team with love and care, and executed with hard work and talent by the cast. It’s a theatrical event not to be missed.
West Side Story
Joburg Theatre, Joburg
R190 to R370 at computicket.com