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Fizzy and Funny and Fine

Cécile Roche and Anja A. Drautzburg

West Side Story
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Dir. Dominic Applewhite
Oxford Playhouse
4-7 February 2015

How to do West Side Story in 2015? Wouldn’t it be nice to present a timeless love story to combat postmodern cynicism? What are we left with at the end once disaster has struck and the man is dead?

Dominic Applewhite, in his director’s note, points out that a particular emphasis of the production of West Side Story is to “humanise the (…) careless depictions of femininity”. Compared to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 Broadway production and the memorable filmic adaptation in 1961, the women characters on the Oxford Playhouse stage do indeed have more of a voice, especially in one of the key scenes, “America”, which originally included male characters.

The musical has been attacked for being misogynistic and, despite a heightened awareness, traces of this remain visible in this production, especially when it comes to the slightly colourless Jets girls. These characters also raise questions about the production’s handling of race. Applewhite states that “it may come as a surprise that we chose to cast race-blind”, and yet the use of the somewhat exaggerated Puerto-Rican accents undermines both the acting and the singing. As a result, the director’s vision is convincing on the pages of the programme, but could have been more fully realised on stage. Yet this phonetic detail does not distract from the lively performance of Annabel Mutale Reed, as Rosalia, in her eulogising of Puerto Rico. More praise goes to Helena Wilson, as Anita, who is a true highlight of the show with her beautifully mature and deeply emotional voice, as well as her outstanding stage presence. Wilson’s strengths also shine through in “A boy like that”, the duet with Clemi Collett (Maria), where Collett finally realises the emotional depth and tragic potential that has not come across in her performance before this point. In general, the acting needs tightening in order not to fall short of the highly energetic dance scenes.

For a musical in which love is key and which relies so heavily on the chemistry between the two lovers, the lack of a real connection at times conveys a sense of uncertainty as to whether the actors know enough about their characters. In a possible attempt to pre-empt criticism, Applewhite quotes Peter Brook’s The Empty Space in which “musicals are the epitome of “Deadly Theatre”. Due to the demands placed on actors in musicals, Applewhite attests the possible deadliness to a lack of emotion. Unfortunately, there is a sense that not enough genuine emotion is conveyed between Brandon Levin (Tony) and Clemi Collett (Maria) until the very end when Maria bemoans Tony’s death, a moving scene, where a much desired for forcefulness and rawness is finally realised. This is achieved in part by the strong ensemble present on stage.

The production really is an ensemble piece, which already becomes apparent in the first scene where tensions are building and relationships are established. Tommy Siman as Riff and Artemis Froushan as Bernardo, as leaders of the Jets and the Sharks, with their good vocal range, deserve special mention. The groups of boys they lead are developed convincingly; one of the highlights is the rendering of “Gee, Officer Krupke”, which provides some comic relief and is one of the show’s timeless songs. Issues picked up on in the song—for instance, broken homes and social depravation—are still relevant nowadays. There is a lot of comic talent to be observed; Nathan Ellis (A-rab) stands out due to his stage presence and natural flair. Unlike some of the other scenes, especially the “wedding scene”, where playing for laughter does not quite fit in, here, comedy and relevance are balanced out nicely.

What cannot be praised too much is the design of the production as well as the lighting. Set designer Nathan Stazicker has created a time- and placeless urban space that really comes to life thanks to Ed Horner’s and John Evans’s delightful lighting and sound concept. The change over from scene to scene is very precise and the way that lighting and music convey shifts in mood and atmosphere is nothing but impressive. The live orchestra under the direction of Eric Foster certainly adds to the vivid ensemble performance. The attention to detail in Ed Addison’s original choreography proves meaningful in that it anticipates certain plot developments while at the same time telling its own story.

Ultimately, West Side Story has always been a crowd-pleaser and the first night of this production was no exception. It is certainly a piece that can transcend its original context, and it would have been interesting to see an updated version. With such an amazingly talented cast at hand, the production team could have dared to experiment more without losing the essential tragic love story.

Cécile Roche is a French Lectrice at The Queen’s & St John’s Colleges, Oxford. She holds an Agrégation in English and is working towards a doctoral project on late 19th century British poetry & painting at the University of Paris X.

Anja A. Drautzburg is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and is a lover of all things thespian. She is Editor of ORbits at the Oxonian Review.