I received a last-minute invitation to see the local High School’s rendition of The West Side Story tonight. While knowing fully that I am about to witness the utter ruin of one of my favourite musicals, I thought I’d accompany my friend, who is a professional director as well, to go and support the local project, and her.

Let me just clear the air by saying that I have more experience in teaching acting to high school students than I care for. I am well aware of the implications and pitfalls of putting up a show with self-conscious, hormonal teenagers, so the rage I am about to go into is not related to the quality of their work, or their ability or potential to be wonderful energetic performers.

I’ll take the liberty to start with the live orchestra that I couldn’t help noticing as I squeezed my bum past an endless row of teenager’s faces in what must have been the narrowest isle I’ve ever witnessed. The cause of this fire hazard was soon identified as a giant thrust built out past the apron of the stage. An utterly useless construction which, in my opinion only served to aggravate bad blocking. The rest of the set consisted of three sets of scaffolding, which made the little hairs in the back of my neck stand on end. Not only were these structures on wheels, but students were being pushed around on stage during a blackout while standing on top of them without safety harnesses in full view of their parents! I certainly hope the director had these parents sign their little indemnity forms. The scaffolding,  by the way was practically useless. The space it took up onstage could have been used instead of constructing that hideous ramp.

The music was exquisite. Judging by the beards on some of the musicians faces, I’m guessing they probably were not students. However, the sound filled up the space and warmed it quite nicely. I just wish that I could still hear what the characters were saying on stage!

The casting was very awkwardly done. There were chorus line actors who carried tremendous presence and a black girl with a gorgeous voice who had some unidentifiable character, while Riff was played by a boy who spoke a very strange dialect of some language I couldn’t quite make out. Maria was too tough, which had the effect of making a round character utterly flat. Anita was played by a tall black-haired beauty who spoke in an accent that seemed to make me feel there were perhaps a Spanish colony in the Karoo that no one knew about. Her pace was so slow, and her voice so low, that she seemed old. Her height took away her vulnerability in the drug store scene and made her look, in my friend’s words, like a flailing plant in water. Tony was the perfect picture of a romantic hero, if only he had been directed properly, he could have done a near brilliant job.

The whole production lacked any sort of tension line whatsoever. The pace was distractingly episodic. The actors seemed to try to copy the film version. However, the changes that were made took away from the play in structure and intention which left the actors desperately trying to pick up the pieces. “America” totally fell apart. The director had the boys leave the scene and suddenly the girls were singing on their own. In this version ALL the girls, lead by Anita, were duelling with just one other girl, awkwardly placed on the other side of the ill-balanced stage. Luckily this girl’s voice more than made her count. Good for her, because the director sure as heck wasn’t going to give her the spot she more than deserved in this production.

As if these random choices weren’t detrimental enough, the director seemed to have a terrible grasp of the dynamics of theatre in general. Gags were thrown into tender scenes sending the audience into stitches while the poor actors were trying to keep their focus. There were a few moments I wondered if Tony was not perhaps a sociopath. He never seemed to lose his cheer, even after he killed Maria’s brother. As if all these paranormal decisions weren’t bad enough, a ballerina suddenly tiptoes on stage in a black leotard and pink tutu for no apparent reason at all, making that Jacobean court masque research project I had to do at university a whole lot less crazy.

I can safely say that the kids gave it all they had. They poured their energy into the show and their parents have good reason to be proud of them. The director? Not so much. It pains me to know that this production could have been a gajillion times better if a trained director were at the wheel to at least put all the right children in the right parts, and then to put them on a stage that isn’t a safety hazard. What pains me more is the presumptuous  ambition of the project. Fancy expensive glossy posters with a professional orchestra kindles a kind of over-expectation which makes the fall so great … but who am I to say?

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