Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: West Side Story at MBS, till 30 Sep 2017

Jeremy Lee gives us his review of West Side Story, now running at MBS's Mastercard Theatres till 30 September 2017.

Racial divisions in the heart of America. Ordinary people torn apart by discrimination and prejudice against people who look different from them -- a state of affairs that permeates all levels of society. And uncaring authorities that not only don’t stop the hatred but exacerbate and even encourage the bigotry.

Sounds like modern-day America under Trump? Nope, it’s actually the 1950s New York setting of West Side Story, the classic musical that’s now playing at the MasterCard Theatres at the Marina Bay Sands till 30 September.

Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the musical took Broadway by storm when it opened in 1957. It’s not difficult to see why, with the legendary Leonard Bernstein’s score that is packed with classics, the evocative lyrics of a young Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins’ energetic choreography where dancers prance, kick and twirl with exhilarating, dizzying speed.

We see said acrobatics in the very first scene, where rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks face off not with punches and shoves, but via a “dance-off”. Why are they fighting? Well simply because the Sharks are new immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Jets are the local (or rather, white 2nd-generation immigrant) guys who come from troubled backgrounds. The foes see this territorial tussle as a life-and-death struggle against a different culture that they feel threatened by.

And the police officers who happen to come by occasionally just to make sure nobody gets killed on their turf? They may be the worst of the lot, perhaps the most bigoted of all and seeing the warring groups as pesky inconveniences to be eliminated.

This pointless enmity between people who hate each other on sight is the all-encompassing, tragic thread that runs through the musical, one that tears down anything that is good -- and there is initially something very good about the romance between Tony, formerly of the Jets, and Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo.

Those who’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet will know that all does not end well, people die, and the lovers do not live happily ever after.

Along the way, though, we do get some very good numbers. It’s just a pity that besides love duet “Tonight”, most of them aren’t heard again. So appreciate showstoppers like “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “One Hand, One Heart” and “I Feel Pretty” while you can -- you won’t hear them again. Probably the best song of all “Somewhere” is sung mostly off-stage by a disembodied voice during a dream sequence. Then you have the raucous group numbers like “Cool”, “America” and “Gee Officer Krupke” that are a triumph of fierce comic timing, humourous lines and breathless cavorting. Too bad the sound system was at times not up to the task of conveying Sondheim’s sharp lyrics to the audience, resulting in quite a few missed jokes.

No matter though, the sonorous voices of the cast at least were capable of literally being music to our ears. Perhaps the best voice of all belongs to Natalie Ballenger as leading lady Maria. Her strong and plaintive soprano is a delight to behold, and she effortlessly executes dulcet love duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”, upbeat number “I Feel Pretty” and the more operatic “A Boy Like That”. It’s a pity that the score doesn’t allow her to have a solo showstopper to sink her teeth into.

Fellow Shark Anita (Keely Beirne) is no slouch either -- she chews scenery as the sassy sidekick, and is the most watchable character of the show. A highlight is “America”, an ode to her adopted country, where she exudes rambunctious charm.

Lance Hayes (as Jets leader Riff) and Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva (Bernardo) do admirably in roles with limited character development and like their fellow dancers, light up the stage with their pure athleticism.

Leading man Marc Koeck (Tony) makes up for his slightly shallow singing voice with the impressive ability to belt the high notes of his songs beautifully, and possesses a dashing and compelling stage presence.

But the sterling performances make it all too anti-climatic when the show ends tragically -- not only in terms of the plot, but also in terms of the music: There’s no soaring reprise of any hit song, but a plodding orchestral interlude of “Somewhere”. What follows is a mechanical curtain call where the company presents themselves in 2 rows, without music.

Perhaps the reason for the anti-climax is because the musical has an unhappy ending; not just any old unhappy ending either, but one that hits a little too close to home -- the show may be set in the 1950s, but the theme of division and discrimination is all too relevant now, especially in Trump’s America.

And such timeliness is exactly the reason why West Side Story can be a cautionary tale for audiences in today’s world, which is getting more polarised by the day.

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