Lynelle Kenned as Maria and Jonathan Roxmouth as Tony in Fugard Theatre’s smash hit musical, West Side Story. Picture: Supplied

When Lynelle Kenned was cast as Maria in the 2014 auditions for Fugard Theatre’s smash hit musical, West Side Story, which enjoyed a successful run at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town, it was a bittersweet experience.

Her mum had passed away before she could see Kenned essay the role of Maria and go on to win SA’s prestigious Fleur De Cap award for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a Musical or Music theatre show.

In a chat with Tonight, the affable actress, who is also a presenter on Pasella, recalls, “It was the first production I did after my mum passed away and it was also the first show I won an award for so I dedicated the award in her memory.”

West Side Story is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Set in New York City’s Upper West Side in the mid-1950s, the musical explores the rivalry between two gangs: the Jets and the Sharks.

The animosity is heightened when Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth), a former member of the Jets and best friend of its gang leader, falls in love with Maria (Kenned), who is the sister of Bernardo (Christopher Jafta), ringleader of the Sharks.

Kenned notes, “The planning that goes into a production of this scale is incredible. I’m talking about logistics, finalising the cast and working around availability. Fortunately, all the presenters on Pasella are freelance, so you are allowed to follow other interests. And I confirmed my availability for this year.”

In revisiting her character after a 16-month break, she was able to breathe fresh energy into her performance.

She explains, “You have such a wide emotional growth. Here is a young girl who has all these dreams and, through her loss, she becomes such a rounded character going through such an incredible journey.

“West Side Story is a feast for the eyes and ears. The music is some of the most incredible that you will find. It’s Latin-infused. There are elements of opera, as well as an incredible jazz session. Birrie le Roux has designed the costumes. It’s just a burst of colour and has this lovely urban energy.”

She continues, “Matthew Wild gives the actors space. Whenever you are doing something for the second time, you get to revisit what works and maybe what you can improve on. As an actress, you are have to play it fresh and organic. The show needs to play like magic.

“We have all grown and we bring all that experience and knowledge of the last 16 months into the show.”

Interestingly, she was meant to work with Jaftha on a pantomime. But, due to her mum being sick, she never got to do so until West Side Story came along.

She praises, “It’s such a physical role and there’s a lot of dancing. He is believable as the leader of the Sharks gang.

“Professionally and as a person, I cannot sing his praises enough. That also goes to all the principal and ensemble cast members as well. Everyone is established in their own right and it is such a collaborative process.

“Another highlight for me is working with Jonathan. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone as hard working and talented as he is. Jonathan is so emotionally-nuanced and musically brilliant,” she adds.

Reflecting on her notable scenes, Kenned says, “The balcony scene, which reveals the incredible chemistry between the two characters.”

So, what’s next for this promising actress?

She says, “I always say, when you set goals, you should set goals that commit to your growth. And from that, the opportunities will come. If any parts come through for TV, movies or theatre, I’m definitely open to it.

“More recently, I was in The Sound of Music in Durban.

“I wasn’t aware, at the time, that Anant Singh was among the audience. He emailed The Playhouse afterwards to congratulate us on a wonderful show and made special mention of my ‘wonderful interpretation’ in my role.

“It was such a beautiful validation that you are on the right path, doing the right thing.

“I would have loved to have shared it with my mum. She was my biggest supporter and all of this is testimony to how much she has believed and invested in me.”

This production runs at the Joburg Theatre from today until March 2 and promises to be a truly phenomenal musical experience.