Adelaide Youth Theatre’s production of West Side Story is a joy. It’s a risky proposition for any community theatre company to mount this show, because one expects big production values, especially dance routines. Pleasingly, Shenayde Wilkinson-Sarti’s choreography (with assistance from Joe Meldrum) and quality execution by the cast delivers on this expectation in spades. This could be Wilkinson-Sarti’s best work to date.
With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story focusses on the simmering hatred and rivalry between two teenage street gangs in New York city – the Sharks, comprising unassimilated migrants from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, who are ‘whites’. As one gang struggles for supremacy over the other, there are numerous all-in fights. Bernardo, who is the leader of the Sharks says to Riff, the leader of the Jets, just before such a fight, all of us hate you and all of you hate us, so there’ll be no shaking of hands. Tony, an ex-member of the Jets falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, and when this is discovered it leads to tragic outcomes. There are similarities with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which inspired Laurent’s book.
Daniel Barnett plays Tony with assuredness. With his strong and reliable tenor voice, Barnett does justice to all that he sings: from the rousing “Something’s Coming”, to the iconic “Maria” and “Tonight”. He is as much at home with these big numbers as he is with the more sensitive and difficult “One Hand, One Heart” that is sung in duet with Maria. But he’s not just a singer – he can dance as well, and is a fine actor. His characterisation of Tony allowed him to differentiate himself from the Jets, and the Sharks.
Leticia Lee plays Maria with joy and innocence, and like Barnett, she establishes her character clearly and distinguishes herself from the other girls. Without being overly demonstrative, Lee and Barnett unremarkably establish the romantic link between Maria and Tony. This occurs perhaps too quickly to allow the chemistry to be savoured and observed by the audience, but that’s presumably a directorial decision by director Nic Collins. Lee’s duets with Barnett are enjoyable. She sings with modest vibrato, except at the end of extended phrases, and the overall effect is to underline Maria’s virtue. Her portrayal of grief and anger when Tony is shot is a highlight of the show. There is not a lot of build up to the shooting, with the gunman only becoming evident at the last possible moment, and with little to respond to her performance stretches time. It’s quite well done.
Taylor Tran plays Anita with coquettishness and, crucially, vulnerability. This is most evident in the rape scene, which Collins and Wilkinson-Sarti have staged extremely well. Anita’s attitude is always palpable. A strong performance from Tran.
Mason Pugh and Asher Gordon give competent characterisations of Riff and Bernardo. They are cocky and posturing with an evident propensity to violence that is always visible just below the surface, ready to erupt.
The principal roles are completed by Maddok Mackenzie as Officer Krupke, Samuel Cannizzaro as detective Shrank, Millie Brake as the solo singer in the iconic “Somewhere”, and Jaxon Joy in dual roles as Gladhand and Doc. With strong acting performances, Joy again shows that he is an up and coming actor to look out for.
The music score to West Side Story is demanding. It traverses multiple styles: romanticism, jazz and Latin American. Director Nic Collins and Music Director Mark Stefanoff have chosen to use a professionally produced pre-recorded music track, so there is no live orchestra or conductor that cast members can take their cues from, or use as a ‘get out of jail’ card if disaster should strike! But it all works an absolute treat, and the young cast take it all in their stride and produce an almost flawless performance. Sound engineering by Ryan O’Dea is excellent. Stefanoff is to be congratulated for the obvious hard work he has put in, much of which would have been done before the cast were ever selected.
Serena Cann’s minimalist set comprises scaffolding and screens upon which various location-suggesting images are projected (such as shop fronts, and tenement buildings). The projections themselves, by Ray Cullen, are excellent and are complemented well by Rodney Bates’ empathetic lighting, and skilled follow-spot operation. Although Collins moves his cast well around and through the set, the stage at Influencers Theatre, like the auditorium itself, is cavernous, and the sense of intimacy needed in several scenes is not always achievable, despite attempts to reduce the audience’s field of vision through selective lighting. More could probably have been done to address this minor concern, and to make off-stage activity by stage crew less visible.
Kerreane Sarti and Emma Riggs’ costume plot is adequate, and conveys a sense of ‘the street’. The costumes worn by the female dancers for some of their routines are particularly colourful and latino-infused.
As stated earlier, the dancing and choreography is a highlight. Not only is every dance number performed well, the routines are designed to support and be supported by Bernstein’s music. Synchronization is outstanding, and the transitions from large crowds to smaller ensembles happen seamlessly and almost in the blink of an eye. The dance routine for “Somewhere” is beautiful to watch, but is choreographed to have ensemble members execute numerous leaps which resulted in noisy landings.
Adelaide Youth Theatre’s production of West Side Story is very well done indeed. From the opening high energy prologue to the emotional final scene of loss and longing, the large cast and company give it all. This production by our local youth makes it abundantly clear that the future of musical theatre in Adelaide is in good hands. Very good hands indeed.