It’s the mid-1950’s on the streets of west side Manhattan. Tensions are mounting between two teenage gangs; the first from a white working-class background – the Jets – and the second a group of Puerto-Ricans vying for their own piece of the ‘American dream’ – the Sharks. As the situation on the streets reaches boiling point a chance encounter sees two star-crossed lovers torn between pursuing their love and loyalty to their friends. The story that follows delves into forbidden love, family, friendship, heartbreak, segregation & struggle. A story that has been loved and retold since it was first performed on Broadway in 1957.
Babirra Theatre Company now delivers their interpretation of this classic musical. With satirical numbers giving insights into the lives of both gangs and as many memorable characters as the original film adaptation had awards. This is a musical not to be missed.
Theatre People caught up with choreographer Leigh Barker and performer/assistant-choreographer Ashley Tynan.
TP: What do you think attracts people to West Side Story?
Barker: It is the sheer brilliance of the show. You can’t beat Jerome Robbins (choreography), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) in the one show. The music is superb, the dancing is electrifying and, of course, it’s the age old story of Romeo & Juliet.
TP: Both of you have performed in this show before. What has attracted you, personally, as performers back to this show?
Barker: I choose the shows I do based on what I think I’m going to learn from them. Last time I did the show I played Tony (lead), and that was a vocal challenge as I am much more comfortable as a rock-pop singer. So to come back and have the opportunity to show another facet of my talent as choreographer in such a classic show was a definite drawcard.
Tynan: This is my third time performing in West Side Story! I was drawn back to the show in order to challenge myself as not only a performer but in the choreographic role as well. I wanted a task that could challenge me in both areas: West Side Story was a perfect platform to display both of these skills competently.
TP: Unlike other shows, West Side Story has more than just a handful of key characters – in that many members of the gangs and their girlfriends, the police and other adults are highly developed characters. Do you think this contributes to the show’s appeal?
Barker: We believe it has a great impact on the show’s appeal. From a performer’s point of view, it gives all of the actors a challenge. They all have to create detailed characters with their own nuances, traits and relationships with other characters. It also gives an audience a whole lot more characters to feel compassion, hatred or love for.
TP: Does this add extra complications with styling choreography?
Barker: Completely. This is the case especially in amateur theatre, where you have such a huge spectrum of dance ability within a cast. Even just between the Sharks & the Jets we have had to stylize different arms, for example, to denote racial differences.
TP: Ashley, as an experienced dancer, how have you approached the characterization of ‘Anybodys’ in the show?
Tynan: It has been a difficult task to leave behind the ‘showgirl’ style of performing that I have become so accustomed to over the years, but I do admit that it has been a pleasure to be doing a dance show in flat shoes instead of heels! Regarding the characterisation, however, I truly believe that my dance ability has benefit me. Anybodys is known for her stealthy skills of sneaking around. I therefore have found this role quite rewarding, being able to embrace the strong sense of physicality that the character requires.
TP: You’ve mentioned the original West Side Story production team. Many people are familiar with the famous, original choreography of West Side Story. How did you go about your choreography? (i.e. staying true to the film)
Barker: Jerome Robbins was a genius, in a similar way to Bob Fosse. So there is no reason to change the general feel of their original work. Throughout the creative process I decided to stay within the same vain as Jerome, but we have added our own personal flair.
TP: What has been the biggest challenge in this production?
BOTH: It’s been a great ride but there have been many challenges. We’ve had to overcome: two broken hands, one broken ankle, torn ligaments, an appendix operation, two bouts of gastro, a hole in the wall, a root canal, a bad haircut, a newspaper in the eye, three Baby Johns (one of the Jets), cases of glandular fever, four car accidents… and partridge in a pear tree. Need we say more?
TP: In your eyes, what are the best factors of this production of West Side Story?
Barker: To start with we have cast a Tony & Maria (show leads) who are both extremely talented, legitimate classical singers. The overall production design hails from the brains of Jeremy Bailey-Smith & Paul Watson. They have taken on Jerome Robbins original concept of making it quite minimalistic, which in turn had Robbins fired from the original film project! Also, we don’t hand everything to you on a silver platter, so to speak. We decided to make the audience think a little which, I believe, is always a better theatre experience.
Tynan: In all honesty, this cast is one of the strongest I have ever worked with. Each person has brought so many unique and individual talents to the show that I believe it will be nearly impossible to not enjoy this production. Additionally, I feel that Jeremy Bailey Smith’s set design, and the minimalistic nature of it, enhances the creative value. We’ve been able to create so many different images with something as simple as a set of spiral stairs. It’s going to be a fantastic show.
Babirra Theatre Company’s ‘West Side Story’ opens on Friday 27th May at the Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading. To book tickets go to: http://www.whitehorsecentre.com.au/Westside-story.html