West Side Story

Schonell Theatre (Ignatians Musicial Society)


Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Community theatre production

Overtures are tricky things. When all goes well they are useful in settling down an audience, introducing the musical themes that are to follow, and establishing a mood of eager anticipation. When things don’t go so well – as was the case on opening night with some insecure solo work and slips in timing – an audience stirs uneasily, wondering what else might not be quite right.

Well, quite a lot really, at least at the performance I saw. Once the show got under way there were very few musical problems, but the singers and dancers, who all worked very hard, deserved much better support than that provided by the backstage crew on opening night. There were some unforgivable missed and muddled lighting cues, the set changes were much too leisurely, and radio mikes malfunctioned, seriously affecting the male lead, particularly in his first and important solo.

This was a great shame, as Steven Moore has a lovely voice which shone through all the difficulties. His solos are very assured and his voice blends beautifully with that of Siobhan Kranz’s clear and expressive Maria. Heidi Robinson’s Anita provides a spirited foil to the fragility and sweetness of Maria, and the scenes between these two women are among the most effective and affecting in the show.

On the whole, this is a very strong singing cast that copes remarkably well with the demanding dancing and acrobatic movement that the show requires. The guys leap around the stage, clearing fences and bouncing off car wrecks in a convincing exhibition of excessive testosterone; the girls are given less chance to show off, but their dances are spirited. The fights are particularly well choreographed and performed at top speed; the deaths of Riff and Bernardo genuinely shocking

Of the two gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks have, perhaps, the easier task. They are the outsiders and audience sympathy is on their side (as was, clearly, that of fellow outsiders Robbins, Bernstein and Sondheim), though the writers stop short of making the ‘all-American’ Jets totally unsympathetic, putting the worst of the racial slurs in the mouth of the repellent cop, Shrank .

Jason McKell as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, is perhaps the most convincing and powerful presence in this production. He radiates authority, whether it is with his gang or his womenfolk, and is a quietly compelling figure whenever he comes onstage. Matt Fennell as his Jets counterpart, Riff, works hard and dances impressively, but his character is given less to work with.

The small-group set pieces (particularly “America”, “I feel pretty” and the sure-fire “Officer Krupke”) work very well, with Craig Anderson as Action particularly successful. His character seems genuinely dangerous beneath the fun; unlike some of the cast who occasionally suggest leafy western suburbs Brisbane rather then gritty west side New York. However, when Anita is cornered and assaulted by the remnants of the Jets gang, led by Action, it is a genuinely chilling moment, and Heidi Robinson is totally convincing both in her fear and her revulsion. The larger set pieces generally look and sound good, though the full cast reprise of “Tonight” with its microphone and lighting mishaps, causing even the orchestra to seem to panic for a moment, turned into a nightmare last Friday.

Given the attention to detail in many aspects of the production, I was disappointed in the lack of success in making Rick appear a credible ex-gang leader. When we first meet him with his private-school hair style and smart-casual gear we could be forgiven for assuming he had just returned from a Bible Study camp, or auditioning for Godspell . Certainly he had the look of someone surprised to find himself in the wrong musical. Granted, he appeared later with his shirt outside his pants, but even when he tried to stop the gang fight it was hard not to be reminded of a teacher who has finally lost control of Year Nines. Steven Moore needed a lot more help to establish something like street-cred, which a few more work-outs with the gang and a rethink of costuming and hairstyles could have provided.

In the end, however, a musical like this stands or falls on the quality of the singing, the energy of its chorus work, the commitment of the often undervalued orchestra and the loyalty of the company’s supporters. Simone de Haas (director), Harmony Lentz (musical director), and Lindon Weise (conductor) serve Ignatians well, both in challenging the mostly young performers to reach professional levels of performance and in meeting the laudable aim of community theatre groups : to provide quality theatre at affordable prices.

Directed by Simone de Haas

Playing until 5 August 2006: evenings 7:30 pm, Wednesday 19 July 6:30 pm.

Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Thu 13th July 2006)