Style that still lets the bride shine...
REHEARSALS have begun for Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story which is to be staged in Durban in a few weeks, presented by The Playhouse Company.
Featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the production, under the helm of director Ralph Lawson, looks set for a highly energetic run.
Set in the Upper West Side neighbourhood in New York City in the mid-1950s, the musical explores themes such as racial tolerance and social unity through interactions in a working class community, where issues of gang rivalry and forbidden love also come into play.
On the first day of rehearsals Tonight spoke to set and costume designer Sarah Roberts, and Ernestine Stuurman who takes on the lead female role of Maria in the musical, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“When you get a phone call asking if you’d like to design West Side Story, with a full orchestra, it’s obviously a yes – it’s a career highlight,” Roberts begins.
“It’s not just about the story. It’s actually the music. West Side Story is art. I know people in Joburg who want to come down to Durban to see it. One of the reasons is that it is very difficult to cast in terms of the two lead vocalists and full dance company. It’s not a musical you are going to see often,” she said.
Roberts had about a year to start thinking and developing the look and feel of the show.
“I’ve spent lots of time in New York, because of the Sarafina (musical) tours, so I have a feel of that Upper West Side. Joburg and Manhattan are quite similar in that they are cultural melting pots. I really want a sense of very diverse, crowded living,” she says quite passionately before adding, “don’t expect literal localisation, that would be patronising. I don’t think you need to point out similarities for the audience. Expect fragmented realism. Some bits will be real, some will be blurred and in and out of focus.”
While many West Side Story productions have opted to stick with the original designs, Roberts said she was going for something more “sexy”. “We don’t want a museum piece. We want a piece that acknowledges that it’s set in the Fifties, but still sexy.”
It’s a goal made possible with the tireless wardrobe department at The Playhouse: “There are only two working wardrobes in the country, one at Cape Town Opera and here at The Playhouse. Here you have the incredible privilege of working with an extraordinary team. The privilege of having that kind of support is what is being eroded in new theatre making. Theatre is teamwork and The Playhouse wardrobe is an extraordinary team to be working with.”
“The challenge is to find that flow and design to the choreography. It’s West Side Story on the East Coast of Africa, so I’m interested in that West and East. If we were doing it in Joburg, it would be different. So it needs to be retro, a bit like contemporary couture fashion, but it must also be now.”
Roberts said the decision to have the set built in Joburg meant she could be more hands-on: “I’ve tried to stay not influenced by any of the stage productions (of West Side Story) but I will admit that I’m influenced by the movie.”
Meanwhile for the young Ernestine Stuurman, of Cape Town, playing the lead in a musical of this stature came as a surprise.
“When Ralph asked me I was blown away. This is my first professional musical and I’m not a dancer, I’m a kid from the street, everything I know is from TV, I just do what they do. But there is not going to be much dancing, this is more of a singing role. I work for Cape Town Opera’s show Porgy and Bess and Ralph is in that show, but the funny thing is, I never knew he was looking at me with a director’s eye, so I was quite surprised when he asked me about the role of Maria,” she explained.
“I was blown away by the rehearsal and I could understand why Ralph chose certain people for certain roles. The things that are taking place in this musical, the violence, the gansterism, the social issues, these things are still going on today. So it is a very relatable story.”
Choreography is by Adele Blank, lighting by Michael Broderick, sound by Trevor Peters and Andrew Warburton is the musical director. The KZN Philharmonic will be under the baton of maestro Lykele Temmingh (alternate conductor Naum Rousine).
• West Side Story runs from November 22 to December 29 at The Playhouse Opera Theatre. Tickets from R100 to R150, concessions for students/ pensioners. Booking is open at Computicket. For information on block bookings and function packages call Dawn Haddon at 031 369 9456.