26
Sep
13

West Side Story

 

West Side Story

Noosa Arts Theatre

11 – 28 September 2013

 

SEASON SOLD OUT

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

It’s West Side Story but not as you know it. Director, Sam Coward, notorious for his controversial plot points and front-page theatrics, has once again pushed the boundary and raised the bar. Sunshine Coast audiences have never seen anything like it, and yet this is the sort of theatre we love to experience. It’s not done enough, and we know this is so because there are very few directors who can pull it off. It’s real, raw, and gutsy. And at the same time this version resonates with tender moments, the familiar tugs at the heartstrings, the symbolic, and some rather Brechtian cum Matrix representations of death!

 

A bullet is imagined, shaped by the actors’ hands and propelled across the space by the hands and the conviction of the artists. Buckets of paint are produced at precisely the right moment, and we see the foolishness and tragedy of jealousy, hate, blind rage and gang war – any war – in one vivid splash of red; it’s a powerful image. It’s a bittersweet story made all the more poignant by the director’s take on the futility of fighting.

 

The performers remain on stage for the duration, sitting and supporting the action, remaining intensely focused and chiming in with harmonies and backing vocals in the bigger numbers. This works a treat, allowing unwavering attention from the cast throughout the show; it’s something that is often so lacking on our community stages. (Because “community theatre is just for fun”, right? Discuss. #communitytheatre) Thanks to the awesome talent of Lighting Designer, Travis Macfarlane, this production also looks professional, with intimate spaces lit perfectly within the open space of the stripped-back theatre, in another first for Noosa Arts Theatre.

 

The rehearsal process has been demanding – I know – and the hard work has paid off. These performers, some of whom had never graced the stage before, have learned focus, discipline, and how to take direction. They’ve further developed a skill set that includes improvisational and collaborative skills, a repertoire of character traits, a more musical ear, vocal sass and physical acumen that some of them didn’t know they had!

 

Stephanie Brown’s choreography perfectly embraces the grungy feel of the street and the tough relationships established there. The dance happens organically, flowing on from the action, transitions that in less capable hands would appear clunky and kitsch. For a classic dance show with its original, immediately recognisable choreography by Jerome Robbins, this is an entirely new, seamless dance aesthetic for actors, and I wish we could see more of it on the professional stage. (Once again, I wish more of our professionals would come up to the beautiful Sunshine Coast to see productions like this one! Are you CRAZY missing the opportunity to experience that sort of weekend once or twice a year?! I’m practicing patient acceptance with all you.). We see the characters very clearly through their movement, and the humour and pathos of ensemble numbers (America, Cool and Krupke) showcase this cast’s ability to tell a story very simply, and in a dramatic form that doesn’t go so far into another realm that we can’t relate to its core messages. And that’s key to the success of this production – you might not have seen before, paint used in such an abstract manner to represent blood on stage, and you might not expect the action to start out in the street and see, in plain, view, the actors warming up backstage  – but the combination of dramatic forms used work to bring us a clear, almost cinematic style in a bare theatrical space that allows us to become a part of the storytelling. It’s like being on location, and when the director calls, “ACTION!” (in this case, the call for “LIGHTS!”) we’re suddenly lost in the magic…

 

West Side Story Image by Andrew Seymour

 

Jordan Russell’s Maria is a little stronger than you might expect, and rightly so, juxtaposed against Michelle Lamarca’s Anita, a tough, tattooed, velvet-hot-pants-clad little dynamite; she dances, belts out her songs, and establishes a relationship on stage with Maria that is at once sensitive, protective and forgiving. Their duet A Boy Like That/I Have a Love is perfectly measured; Russell is completely convincing and Lamarca’s fury gradually mellowed by her sister’s heartfelt words. These girls work beautifully together, bringing us the tricky ebb and flow of a real family dynamic.

 

West Side Story Image by Andrew Seymour

 

Hayden Rodgers is a gentle Tony, but he’s not a sap, as we so often see. Instead, he retains the cool, easy-going exterior of the lax leader of the Jets and at the same time, levels up to win Maria, showing her that he’s sensitive, respectful, fun and daring, and ready to commit to being with her for life. The duet delivered from the “balcony” wins us over in an instant; it’s sweet but not saccharine and we believe every moment. The bridal shop scene, so often slow and silly (well, c’mon, it is!), in this production makes us smile and genuinely hope for the best. It’s staged innovatively and it’s delightful; I remember that One Hand, One Heart was my parents’ wedding song, and it holds a special place in our family’s collective memory.

 

West Side Story Image by Andrew Seymour

 

Which brings me to Barnardo (in the film he was my mother’s favourite) and in this production he works hard – at times a little too hard – to convince us of his place in the family. After we had to do a shout out to find them, I’ve found the men in this show to be exceptional. (I overheard, murmured by the woman sitting behind me on opening night after a sharp intake of breath as she sat down, “Oh! They’re such BIG boys, aren’t they?”) The Sharks support Barnardo (Donovan Gaspar) in this role as if their lives depended on his leadership (and they do). Likewise, the Jets are such a strong bunch (and yes, some of them are pretty, er, extraordinarily strong-looking; good work, guys!) that I was at first genuinely surprised to see – and hear – them nail their individual roles and the powerful ensemble sound in this show. Props to Vocal Coach, Karina Gough, who has coaxed many of these performers to a level of performance they were not aware they had in their repertoire. Speaking of impressive vocal performances…

 

WSS_adamanddanjal_AS8_7275 (5)

 

Adam Flower is Riff, the real leader of the Jets, and I know you know I love this guy (his Jesus Christ in our Superstar in 1999 is up there with Tim Minchin’s recent performance). His suave, swinging acapella opening number, and his cool stage presence wins our hearts and keeps his gang at his heels. Completely convincing, Flower gives us the masterclass on character and nuance that we missed scheduling at the theatre this year (well, we’ve been busy!).

 

WSS_AS8_6944 (4) Credit Andrew Seymour

 

Ian Mackellar (Doc), Frank Wilkie (Officer Krupke/Snowboy) and Stephen Moore (Lt Schrank) each bring such depth and breadth of experience, and their expert interpretations of their roles to the stage; I know the younger members of this company have learned a lot from these three, who are some of our favourite Sunshine Coast performers. Always the showstoppers, Officer Krupke (and its kick line), and Cool (and its groovy, too-cool-for-school choreography) show us of just what the boys – and Ms Brown – are capable.

 

WSS_AS8_6941 (3) Credit Andrew Seymour

 

Unfortunately my only problem with the production comes in the form of the musos, under the guidance of Musical Director, Noel Bowden, who – let’s face it – has done a lot with what he’s had to work with. The crux though is that it’s not been enough and in a production of this calibre it’s completely unacceptable for the orchestra to perform below par but indeed they do, or did on opening night. I commend the singers on their musicality and their solid focus, without letting us know how hard they are having to work on counting and staying with the under-rehearsed musicians. I can imagine that were this production aptly supported by a professional orchestra, it would blow my mind, and all we can hope is that they improve during the season, particularly the clarinets and the string section…. perhaps they already have, and I’ll look forward to hearing them in the final performance on Saturday. The term “professional” indicates a particular standard and this is not what we have heard from them yet.

 

The entire West Side Story 2013 season sold out within days of opening night, and last week in my column for the Sunshine Coast Daily, I discussed what it is that makes a sold-out show. I discussed it rather poorly there, I admit it was not my best column (all the elements were there but terribly composed!), but I’ll challenge you to tell me here, what do you think makes a sold-out show? It’s not just word-of-mouth! There must be cause to rave over a show after all!

 

If you’re lucky enough to have seen this production, what have you loved about it, and what would you like to see from our local community stages (and from those down the road in Brisbane) next? I know I’d like to see the same level of commitment from all involved every time we stage a show (sorry, other theatre widows), and a standard that some of you have only ever considered to be paid “professional” work. It’s like running a race or being part of a team sport – it’s fun to be in it, sure, but how much more fun does it become when you WIN?! Sam Coward’s production of West Side Story for Noosa Arts Theatre proves that we can work harder, smarter, and have more fun for the WIN! #FTW

 

N.B. There are some individuals in this ensemble who I hope will continue to perform, though I won’t single them out here. The same magical thing happened when we did Superstar in ’99, and so much amazing, awesome talent came out of the woodwork to do the show…and then disappeared again, back where they’d come from, mostly to the hills I think?! If you’ve been involved in a top production, it’s only time and changing priorities that will limit your involvement again, so do consider coming back to us to do it all again sometime before life takes another turn! You ARE amazing! x

 

Photo Credit: Andrew Seymour

See more production pics here

Image by XS Entertainment

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