Camille Paglia listed the Star Wars saga as one of 100 key works of Western art*. I prefer to include West Side Story. We saw Free Rein Theatre Company performing WSS last night at the Q Theatre and it was sensational. Remember, this is a semi-professional company, so its show was pulled together from a range of skills from schoolkids up. And schoolkids is appropriate. WSS is an undated Romeo & Juliet, and the central characters are kids. Who else can love so strongly? But what a story of tragedy, of slips and errors, of social conditions and misunderstandings and at the end, perhaps of hope for a better future. All accompanied by the hugely infectious music of Bernstein. Not for nothing that this work is so loved. I have a copy of the red sleeved LP and it’s played to death so the words are inpinged on my mind. I feel every musical line from the first dots of the overture. I know most of the spoken lines, too. So I was a bit surprised to find a few unexpected segments: a strangely unrecognised musical intro to one tune (was it I feel pretty?); a repeat of the rumble death scene and a dance scene in red and black that I couldn’t place; only girls singing America. That’s perhaps the difference between the stage and film versions. I’ve read of a few scene changes from Broadway to film.
But what of this performance? I could not believe the effectiveness and joy of the dancing. They had limited space on stage but this was hugely vibrant and capable. Plenty of angled ankles displayed extensive training. Similarly the fun and details, like Maria’s three mates, Rosalia, Consuela and Francisca, in the I feel pretty scene. The love was believable and the tragedy was deeply felt, accepting the fantasy of theatre; the confusion and cock-sure offense of the kids was willing. The two gangs, the Jets and Sharks, were effective, although I have to give it to the Sharks for dignity and presentation: latins just have sexier moves than us whites. The voices were stunning at times, well in tune, powerful and wonderfully amplified and true to the original, even if some high notes were a struggle. I loved the operatic counterpoint of a few scenes, although I preferred the street, pop voices to operatic styles. This is art of the streets and the purity of opera voices seems out of place (I disliked the concert version by Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras although it’s conducted by Berstein himself, but loved the quirky Songs of West Side Story with artists including Chick Corea, Patte LaBelle, Steve Vai, Aretha Franklin, Brian Setzer and Little Richard singing I feel pretty). Soprano Maria is young, even if wise in love, so actually less interesting to me than alto, Anita, the older, worldier girlfrend of Maria’s brother. It’s Anita who learns from the purity of Maria, but it’s Anita who lives in the world. She’s the one who leads the Sharks girls in singing for America. What a great scene. As was Gee Officer Krupke, that witty play on justice and delinquency. There were so many good voices, but I have to mention the guys, lover Tony, Jets Riff and Action and Shark Bernardo. They were outstanding. Anita was a blast, too. Maria was just lovely in her too-early lost innocence. Plenty of great dancers but Anybody’s, the tomboy hanger-on to the Jets, was prominent and boyish, and sometimes even dignified when out of role for a bit. Feminists might not like her suddenly womanly as she walks Maria out at the end (Tony: “you’re a girl, act like a girl”). As for the music, this is Bernstein. It’s busy and balladic, frantic and occasionally floating, melodious and dissonant, syncopated and presumably hell to read, fabulously orchestrated. It has melodies that cut to your heart and energy that has you out of your seat. Which brings me to the musicians. This was an orchestra of 19 plus conductor. Admittedly, I concentrated on words and vision, but this was hugely impressive. I heard a few wobbly bits, but this was played with verve and love that this music demands. Great!
So, to put it simply, I’m in awe of this show. Both of the work of Gershwin and Laurents and Sondheim and Robbins, and of this semi-professional but long-standing company that can pull it off so well. The highest of praise from your emotionally devastated reporter. Catch it if you possibly can.
I can’t list everyone, but West Side Story was presented by the Free-Rain Theatre Company with Anne Somes (director), John Yoon (musical director), Lisa Buckley (choreographer). Key actors were Lachlan Whan (Tony), Nicola Hall (Maria), Zack Drury (Riff), Jordan Kelly (Bernardo), Amy Dunham (Anita), Michelle Norris (Anybody’s), Max Gambale (Action). The orchestra comprised Major Geoff Grey (conductor), Bernadette Evans, Tony Barker, Jess Stewart, Steve Hally-Burton, Jordan London (reeds), Carly Brown (French horn), Cameron Smith, Claire Leske (trumpets), Matt Ricketts/Simon Hukin (trombone), Elizabeth Charlton, Elysia Fisher, Jane Bairnsfather (violins), Annie Collett (cello), Jace Henderson (bass), Rhys Mottley (guitar), Steve Richards (drums), Alicia Perritt (percussion), Matt Rankin (synthesiser) and John Yoon (piano).