After only a 10-week rehearsal period, OXAGEN Productions have undertaken the mammoth task of staging Leonard Bernstein’s epic West Side Story.
Using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juilet as its theme, Leonard Bernstein combined sophisticated musical concepts and extended dance sequences to focus on a social issue, which in turn, helped usher in an important turning point in American musical theatre and West Side Story as we know it was born.
Theatre People had the opportunity to interview Grace Taylor (Director), Cassie Pennicuik (Choreographer), along with Michael Edwards (Tony) and Tiffany Goring (Maria) for an insight into OXAGEN’s production of West Side Story.
Grace Taylor made her directorial debut with OXAGEN’s production of Spamalot and decided to take a “more conceptual” approach to this production. Going for quite a “stripped back” feel to the show, she is not “literally putting characters in situations”, but relying on the rich content of the show to allow the “script to speak for itself”. “The show is so iconic that I don't feel we need to be literally under the highway or in Maria's apartment, but we can feel we are in these places”.
With West Side Story being one of Broadway’s largest dance shows, it is often on the “bucket-list” for most choreographers, and Cassie Pennicuik is no exception. “It provides the opportunity to showcase a range of dance styles, which has been a challenge but an absolute joy to undertake”.
The score is exceptionally complex with the time signature changing constantly – “Gone were the days of counting 5,6,7,8 and begin!” The cast have worked incredibly diligently to “synchronise” all of the dances to ensure that “none of the choreography has been simplified or lost” throughout the process. After Grace Taylor’s decision to use a more “conceptual set”, the importance of movement to tell the story became much more significant and by bringing the “reality of violence” to the fight sequences, rather than using an “abstract representations”, it has added a complete other dimension to the production.
Tiffany Goring and Michael Edwards have known each other for some time before this production, and they both agree that this has definitely “made working together a lot easier” – particularly in the more intimate scenes. Sharing “lots of laughs along the way” and being patient with each other is the key to a successful working relationship. Goring and Edwards also agree that when they are studying a role, it is paramount to delve into the character’s motivations and find parallels between their (the character’s) life and your own. This then enables you as the actor to “bring the character to life”. When asked for some advice for aspiring performers, the responses were unanimous – “you gotta be in it to win it, audition!”. Becoming involved in productions is the best way of honing your skills as a performer – you need to “acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, source out ways to work on the weaknesses and audition for roles that play to your strengths”.
When Theatre People asked what they hoped the audience would take from this production, Pennicuik and Taylor had this to say: “I hope they find themselves so lost in the story that they are surprised when it is over. I hope that we, as a creative team, have succeeded in making OXAGEN’s West Side Story something different, something special, not something good, but something great.
I hope they will think about the real impacts of rash decisions, but also walk away with a little bit of love in their hearts, because that's ultimately what West Side Story is about: eternal love”.
West Side Story will be performed at the Eldon Hogan Performing Arts Centre, Xavier College, Kew from October 4-12 for seven performances. Tickets are now available at www.oxagen.com.au