Friday, 20 June 2014

West Side Story - WAAPA (19 June 2014)

There are times when you can sense something special is about to happen; a certain electricity in the air, a tingling sensation, a premonition almost. This elusive feeling is even more powerful when it’s a shared experience. Like sitting in a theatre as it slowly fills; watching performers warm up on stage; hearing the orchestra go through their own pre-show preparation; seeing the smoke drenched set and lighting arrays;  listening to the excited chatter of the audience; taking in the smiles of enthusiastic ushers as they help people to their seats.

Suddenly there is the polite announcement about photography and electronic devices. Then absolute quiet. For all of about a second. A shared hush of expectation that is as exquisite as it is fleeting… before the musical director’s baton descends and a lone performer walks on stage and we’re away.

It’s not a feeling I get often but the buzz around WAAPA’s mid-year showcase production at the Regal Theatre has been enormous and I was hoping, expecting, pleading for magic and that’s exactly what was delivered – magic of the most potent kind. If you had told me that baton was a wand I would have believed you.

This is a huge and wildly ambitious production by WAAPA and they’ve thrown everything at it – from a cast of 40 drawn from the second and third year musical theatre students to a 26 piece orchestra, again populated by WAAPA Music students, to the skills of their Production and Design students – the quality and attention to detail in every department is evident. This is nominally a student production but it looks and sounds like a professional, big budget musical. This is a triumph for all involved. 

The set is ingenious with four ‘towers’ (comprising scaffolding, platforms and stairs) that move, often during scenes, but fit together in different combinations to form various locations and are the centrepiece for many memorable moments such as the Balcony Scene. The intricacies of the staging seemed effortless but would have taken many, many hours to get so seamless especially with the number of performers involved.  

The lighting is wonderful and I’m told those towers were actually made of wood but lit to look like metal. It certainly had me fooled. The costuming is colourful and distinctive, clearly delineating the Jets and the Sharks as does the impressive work on the diverse accents, notably for the Latino Sharks. The orchestra was in ripping form and musical director David King definitely had a talented group at his disposal. Choreography by Lisa O’Dea was vibrant and energetic - the cast tear into set pieces like America and Gee, Officer Krupke with real verve. Director Crispin Taylor has attacked this with imagination and flair and the results show in all these elements.

Then there is the cast.   

WAAPA is rightfully proud of its status as one of the top performance academies in the world. When you see that talent arrayed on stage in such a challenging and acclaimed musical you come to understand how very true and earned that status is. They were superb. From the leads on down to the ensemble, from their vocal ability to the slick dancing, you sit back and marvel at the sheer talent on display. The greatness of West Side Story is it presents many different facets for them to explore – at its heart it’s a very dark piece but also sexy, vibrant and fun. There is a joy and exuberance here that is eminently watchable and, of course, there are many wonderful songs that are simply classics such as Maria, Somewhere, America, and Tonight.

William Groucutt nails one of those (Maria) and was a very likeable Tony. Miranda Macpherson shines as Maria and her chemistry with Groucutt is good especially in the more playful moments. Suzie Melloy gives a star making performance as the feisty Anita – she is simply superb and a real charismatic presence. Patrick Whitbread’s Riff and Lyndon Watts’ Bernardo are both suitably strong as the leaders of the respective gangs and the physicality of the male roles was impressive. Jacob Dibb plays the key role of Chino (especially in the darker second act) while Daniel Berini and Nick Eynaud add light comic relief as Detective Schrank and Officer Krupke. Shannen Alyce takes lead vocal on Somewhere to great effect which is a highlight as the amassed cast join in. 

The third years will graduate soon and on the evidence of this and Hair earlier in the year we’ll be hearing a lot more from most if not all of them. The second years gave an exciting glimpse into 2015.

This truly was a spectacular production and WAAPA’s presence on the Perth theatre landscape is an ongoing joy. West Side Story, directed by Crispin Taylor, Musical Director David King and Choreography by Lisa O'Dea, has only three more performances, 20-21 June. If you can get a ticket this is a not-to-be-missed show. 

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