A story filled with romance, wit, raw emotions, and insightful moments that still shine a spotlight on race relations sixty years after its first telling. It’s not difficult at all to sit through this show without thinking about how it relates to our uneasy world today.
Arguably one the most popular, beloved and critically-acclaimed Broadway musicals of all time, West Side Story is an icon of song, dance, and story. It is revisited as a staple musical for any theatre company, this time by one of Melbourne newest theatre companies, Lumina Theatre Co. As their second ever production, the team at Lumina are to be congratulated for putting together such a wonderful show, whilst giving opportunities to both the experienced and enthusiastic performers emerging into musical theatre for the first time.
For Lumina’s production of West Side Story —directed by Daryl Stevenson, choreography by Narada Edgar and musical direction by Daniel Aguiar – their clear intention of a classic and very tangible production of this show very much came to life. As always, the audience is transported to the summer of 1957 in the Upper West Side of New York City, the setting of the ongoing rivalry between two teenage street gangs just as two young lovers find themselves caught on opposite sides of this dangerous turf war.
Two rival gangs (the Sharks, led by Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, led by teenagers born in America) fight over control of their neighbourhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The Jets leader, Riff (Stewart Hawkey), involves his best friend Tony (Matthew Frampton) in the battle, an action that inadvertently leads to disaster when Tony falls in love with Maria (Jessica La Mari), the sister of the Puerto Rican gang’s leader, Bernardo (Anjan Kornepati). The musical’s star-crossed lovers, on opposite sides of a racially charged gang turf war, attempt to bring everyone together but racism and machismo prevent any possibility of peace.
Of course, it helps that the musical’s original creative team—inspired loosely by William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Romeo and Juliet—crafted a beautiful, now timeless classic: from Arthur Laurent, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s. The musical’s story of irrational but real love amidst irrational but deep-seated hate gives a romanticism and relevance that translates into almost any culture. If you have never seen the show, its enduring story and its well-loved songs are ones well all know and can relate to, even if you didn’t realise they came from West Side Story.
Each character was very well cast and the five main characters did a fantastic job of bringing the show to life. Maria (La Mari) did a superb job, sustaining a very believable accent the whole time in both speaking and singing. Her ability to portray emotions to the audience of what is happening at the time is to be congratulated – clearly a future star. Tony (Frampton) also really made the part come to life, with a sincere and honest approach to this character. His delivery of some of musical theatre’s most iconic songs was very well done with a clear and deliberate presentation.
Anita (Espinoza) presented a very clearly emotionally-torn woman, charged with passion and intensity, as one would expect from a hot-blooded Puerto Rican of the 1950’s. Bernardo (Kornepati) was also very well performed, and the frustration, anger and commitment of a gang leader came across brilliantly. The stage presence and commitment to this role were one of the key successes to the success of the show.
Whilst there were some lighting issues from time to time, the overall effect was very well presented. The musical direction was very good with only a few minor issues noticeable to the audience. The staging, costuming and choreography were all very appropriate and in keeping with the theme of the musical. Nothing was over-done nor under-presented. Considering that it was the first musical for some of the cast, as per the program, this was not noticeable at all. So again, congratulations must go to those leading these areas for their clear and effective direction.
Lumina certainly is on the right path with its productions so far, presenting a classic musical in a way that is both fresh and loyal to its original creators. Opening night saw an almost full house which does show that amateur theatre is alive and well in Melbourne. I would encourage anyone who loves this show to go along for a very pleasant evening out and I look forward to their next production.
West Side Story is showing at the Mahon Theatre, Aquinas College – Ringwood from 25 August to 2 September 2017.