Musical Theatre is gloriously alive and pulsating vibrantly in South Africa with the super sensational and ultra-spectacular West Side Story.
It's a tearful and tense emotional roller coaster ride from the dramatic opening where two rival teenage gangs of different ethnic backgrounds struggle for control of the neighbourhood somewhere in the Upper West Side of New York City, to its haunting tragic conclusion.
The dynamic creative team comprising director Matthew Wild, musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, and choreographer Louisa Talbot turns the world's most famous music into a memorable masterpiece that showcases the best talent South Africa has to offer; the potent ensemble of 40 stop for nothing and raise the bar for musical theatre internationally.
With music by Leonard Bernstein, script by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on an original conception of Jerome Robbins and inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, the musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs. The members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a Caucasian gang. Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
Jonathan Roxmouth (Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, A Handful of Keys, Grease) and Lynelle Kenned (Blood Brothers, Showboat, Orpheus in Africa) shine dazzlingly as Tony and Maria, with powerhouse support from Bianca Le Grange (Blood Brothers) as Anita, Christopher Jaftha (Dirty Dancing) as Bernardo, Daniel Buys (Jersey boys, The Rocky Horror Show, Cabaret) as Action, and Stephen Jubber (Jersey Boys) as Riff.
Of the many musical highlights, Roxmouth's colourful delivery of Something's Coming and Maria, and Kenned's I Have a Love will send shivers down your spine; Le Grange's America and A Boy Like That are heavenly, and the ensemble pieces Jet Song, the Tonight Quintet, Gee Officer Krupke, and Somewhere will have you shouting for more.
In contrast to the bigger show number, the intimate moments between Roxmouth and Kenned will live in your heart forever, in particular the soulful Tonight and One Hand, One Heart. It would be sinful to not mention the sensational Dance at the Gym and The Rumble, extraordinary dance sequences that will leave your breathless.
Conor Murphy's magnificent and awe inspiring set becomes an important character in the musical, a colossal shape-shifting and mutating entity that turns ordinary spaces into extraordinary worlds, where a void transforms into unforgettable spectacle thanks to technical director Alistair Kilbee and his team.
Equally memorable is Joshua Cutts' breath-taking lighting design, in particular the transition to the neighbourhood dance, and the treasured universe of lights that illuminate the Tonight duet between Tony and Maria where they profess their love for one another, and Birrie Le Roux colourful costume designs complete the picture.
If there are two significant proclamations West Side Story leaves you with, it's that "when love is this strong, there's no right or wrong", and "Now I can kill too, because now I have hate!", which poignantly sums up the conflicts that divide communities, split cultures, separate worlds and destroy true love.
West Side Story's dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre when it premiered on Broadway in 1957, and has never been more relevant than in South Africa today.
West Side Story is not just a musical experience you will never forget (no matter how often and how many productions you have seen), but this particular production is one whose star will shine brightly forever.
It's a musical the world will have to visit as it is exclusively on at the Artscape Opera until August 23. It is guaranteed that the show will be a sell-out success so make sure to book your seats immediately to avoid the disappointment of a lifetime. It is presented at Artscape by Eric Abraham and the Fugard Theatre.
Performances are from Tuesdays to Fridays at 8pm, on Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm and on Sundays at 2pm and 6pm. Tickets cost from R95 to R400 through Computicket or 0861 915 8000 or via the Artscape box office on 021 421 7695.
Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit www.writingstudio.co.za