Frasier: You refused to take me to West Side Story for my 8th birthday
Martin: Well, that was because of the gangs, that’s scary for a little kid
Frasier: Even gangs that dance
Martin: Especially gangs that dance
West Side Story is the love child of four of the greatest creators ever to grace the musical theatre: an eclectic combination of dance, music and drama that, arguably, single handedly raised the bar for a whole new generation of musical theatre performers. Hence why I applaud and am more than a little in awe of any production company who has the ambition and courage to make an attempt at staging this iconic piece.
OXAGEN have obviously brought the piece to the stage with great dedication and fervor, but sadly I was left mostly unmoved. Kudos, however, must go to Grace Taylor for a clear and well thought out interpretation of the text and the management of a larger than most cast which she has utilized well on a mostly bare stage. She highlights the youth and naïveté of the core characters; if the rage, resentment and machismo is lacking in the gangs’ motivations, she presents them as young kids, playing a game, who never really quite understand the consequences of their actions. It’s the same with Tony and Maria. I’ve never seen an interpretation quite as chaste as this one, as they seem like two young people playing out what they perceive as a great love affair. This actually works in certain scenes when it is used to maximum effect. What lacks in this production is the fire and passion that leads these characters to act the way they do – to fight, to kill, to rape, to fall in love – and these motivations could have been explored much deeper.
The mostly young cast are each given their opportunities to shine, with principals acquitting themselves admirably and the ensemble being given due focus where appropriate. Michael Edwards’ classical training pays off with a beautifully sung Tony, and he shares a brotherly chemistry with DJ Pearce as a believably awkward and child-like Riff. There were little interactions between them which showed just how insecure Riff is as leader of the Jets, adding an extra dimension to the subsequent events. Also on the Jets’ side, Will Balme as Action is a knock out in the second act, with the rest of Jets, in a charming ‘Gee Officer Krupke’.
Vocally, despite a few hitches that can be put down to opening night nerves, Tiffany Goring as Maria is a vocal match for Mr Edwards. Sadly, a lack of chemistry between the pair, combined with Goring’s unfortunate accent (which undermines her performance in the book scenes) inhibits the portrayal of the central love story. I felt that, like many aspects of this production, this was a missed opportunity as Miss Goring is obviously talented and had she had either more time or deeper direction could have credibly portrayed Maria’s journey throughout the course of the play but I do look forward to seeing her in a future role that is better suited to her talents. Hayley Piterman comes through in the second act as a bitter and broken Anita even if her accent like many of the sharks is a tad overdone, descending into the murky realms of racial stereotyping – though to be fair, the book (or Natalie Wood) does not do the Puerto Ricans any favours, either.
My main plaudits must go to the production team, who have clearly worked tirelessly in bringing this production to stage and they must be commended. This is a highly ambitious piece and a great deal of effort is evident in the staging. Simon Bruckard and Rapheal Wong have done an excellent job on the vocals and on Bernstein’s lush orchestrations, a particular highlight being ‘Somewhere’ in the second act when I really was able to lose myself in the beauty of the music. I certainly don’t envy Cassie Pennicuik’s daunting task of choreographing a show that is almost two-thirds dance in a range of different styles, but she has found herself equal to the task, with a respectful salute to Jerome Robbins.
Judging by the reception of last night’s very enthusiastic audience, I hope that the cast will remain inspired and energised to improve as the season progresses.