A Romeo & Juliet musical for all time

By Georgina Benison — The “West Side Story” is a musical which is not just the brain-child of the genius composer, Leonard Bernstein, but the result of a 1957 synthesis of Arthur Laurents’ book based on William Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography. The result is one of the finest Broadway Musical productions of all time with one of the most sophisticated and complex jazz scores heard since the mid-20th Century.
The show was presented in its original form at the Royal Opera House, Muscat by ‘Music Theatre International,’ New York on three sold-out nights at the weekend.  It is set firmly in the 1950s but the plot line of a feud – in this case street gangs in New York City – and eventual reconciliation in the face of pointless, ugly hatred and death sits uneasily relevant to all times including our own. The poignancy of the message has lasted through the centuries since Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet”.
High praise and adulation poured in for this widely-acclaimed Broadway hit after the Muscat shows. One reason for the success of this production lies in the fact that the young cast are all dancer-singers who can act.
So often productions are put on by good singers who can’t dance, or brilliant dancers who cannot sing. These artists are all excellent dancers with fine voices who can act well and present an earthy, convincing portrayal of the back streets of a Manhattan neighbourhood.
The young cast divide into rival gangs of the white ‘Jets’ and the Puerto Rican immigrants, the ‘Sharks’. In a parallel with the ‘ball scene’ in Shakespeare’s play, Maria, a beautiful young Hispanic girl, meets and falls in love with Tony (interestingly with a Polish background) at a dance at the gym for both communities, and in so doing crosses a forbidden line.
Tony was played superbly by the tall, good-looking Kevin Hack whose singing voice was meltingly warm and lyrical. He was well cast for the romantic lead.
IMG_8082Opposite him was the petite Jenna Burns as Maria, whose voice was perhaps just a touch too operatic for the genre but nevertheless made an excellent leading lady in the ensemble. Keely Beirne stole everyone’s heart as Anita, Maria’s feisty best friend, and her brother Bernardo’s girl-friend.
Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, was played by long-standing member of the troupe, the dapper Waldemar Quinines-Villanueva who hails from Puerto Rico himself, so identified strongly with his role and the Sharks’ experience in West Side New York.
The show opened to an impressive scene of tenement-block fire-escapes (echoing the famous balcony scene in Shakespeare’s tragedy of Verona) which formed the three-dimensional scenery throughout, and an effective black-and-white projection of a period street-scene. It was evocative and authentic. No apologies here for the harshness of life nor concessions to Broadway niceties and splendour. The style of dance and fast-banter of the gang members is similarly unrepentant and ruthless. Veteran Dutch set-designer, Paul Gallis, has been in theatre for over forty years so small wonder his interpretation in this production is so effective and poignant.
There was plenty of opportunity for lengthy choreographed sequences afforded by dance numbers in Bernstein’s score: the opening’ rival gang’ overture, the dance at the gym, the Puerto Rican girls’ song, ‘America’ to that famous Huapango rhythm and the ‘Rumble’ itself, in which Riff and Bernardo are knifed – all are brilliantly stylised and danced with precision by the youthful, energetic cast.
In the second Act a choreographed dream-sequence in pure white – with costumes designed by Renate Schmitzer and austere lighting by Peter Halbsgut – is set against the plaintive sound of “There’s a Place for us” being sung off-stage, which brings a surreal mood to the musical, now moving towards its tragic conclusion. Julio Catano-Yee plays the cruel Shark, Chino, with appropriate callousness, and Riff, the Jet’s leader, is played by Lance Hayes in Act 1 until his untimely death (a counter-part to Tybalt’s death in “Romeo and Juliet”).
There were three established actors as adults, and Dennis Holland as Doc the store-keeper, lent a sense of gravity and reflection to the melodrama, while Michael Scott as Lieutenant Shrank and Kenn Christopher as Officer Krupke paradoxically injected much humour.
Underlying the whole dazzling performance was, of course, the superb pit-band of just 19 musicians, including the iconic sounds of the saxophones and arresting Latin rhythms from the percussionists, under their accomplished principal conductor and musical supervisor, Donald Chan.
This 2008 revival of the original 1957 production was directed and choreographed by Joey NcNeely, who worked with Jerome Robbins on Broadway.
With this legacy and the skills of the stellar cast, it is Muscat’s privilege to have had the opportunity to witness this Broadway masterpiece on its doorstep.