Monday 15 April 2019

Barrie Kosky’s imaginative production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story returns the musical to its harshness and explosive power

Bernstein: West Side Story - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese
Bernstein: West Side Story - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese
Bernstein West Side Story; Alma Sadé, Johannes Dunz, Sigalit Feig, dir: Barry Kosky, cond: Koen Schoots; Komische Oper, Berlin  
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 5 April 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
With a riveting and upbeat score by Leonard Bernstein coupled with Stephen Sondheim’s pretty, witty and bright lyrics, it underpins the world success of West Side Story

Amazingly, in the repertoire of Komische Oper since November 2013, this well-deserved revival of Barrie Kosky’s production of West Side Story - based on an original idea by legendary Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins - returned this iconic and well-loved musical to its harshness and explosive power in a fast-paced production that hit the mark in every conceivable way.

The Komische Oper, Berlin's latest revival of Barrie Kosky's production of Bernstein's West Side Story (seen 5 April 2019) featured Alma Sadé as Maria, Johannes Dunz as Tony, and Sigalit Feig as Anita, conducted by Koen Schoots.

Highly acclaimed for his innovative ballets structured within the traditional framework of classical-dance movements, Robbins not only created West Side Story - a major achievement in the history of American musical theatre highlighted by its excitable and volatile dance sequences not least, too, by its innovative setting - but also dance sequences for other signature musicals such as Call Me Madam (1950), The King and I (1951) and The Pyjama Game (1954).

In the same year as Pyjama Game, Robbins also adapted, choreographed and directed a musical version of Peter Pan but I think it’s fair to say that his Broadway career is underpinned by West Side Story whose scenario (based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) surrounds the tragic story of the star-crossed lovers torn apart by racial fanaticism played out through the rivalry and bitterness of New York gangs fighting for supremacy on the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Offering a riveting and upbeat score by Bernstein coupled with Stephen Sondheim’s pretty, witty and bright lyrics, West Side Story (from a book by Arthur Laurents: German translation by Frank Thannhäuser and Nico Rabenald) was a pathfinder in so many ways not least by its extended dance sequences that progressed and styled its own narrative.

Broadway had never seen anything quite like it when it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York, in 1957. Neither had the West End when it arrived at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1958, carrying its Broadway magic with it. The show was the talk of the town and I had the great pleasure of seeing it. A highly-impressive production, it was staged on a grand scale with a huge budget but Barrie Kosky’s production for Komische Oper (assisted by Esther Bialas who, incidentally, designed the costumes for ENO’s new production of The Merry Widow) was equally impressive and economical, too, in its staging.

A well-drilled and well-disciplined dance ensemble (trained by choreographer, Otto Pichler) stamped its credentials on a fine and well-crafted production in which the moods and relationships erupted at the drop of a hat between the rival factions: the Italian-American gang, The Jets, led by Riff (Christoph Jonas) and the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks, led by Bernardo (Lorenzo Soragni). Accordingly, Mr Jonas and Mr Soragni delivered an assured, athletic and commanding performance as befitting the ‘tough’ roles assigned to them.

But the combined performance of Alma Sadé (Maria) and Johannes Dunz (Tony) was well-balanced and well-acted, too, with the famed balcony scene played out with Maria positioned on a metal-structured platform dominating a practically bare stage but with such good lighting effects cutting though a dry-ice scenario, it perfectly enhanced the atmosphere of the overall stage picture.

With no stretch of the imagination, West Side Story is full of great and personable numbers but none more so than that great upbeat and electrifying number ‘America’ - the show’s anthem incorporating one of the most sensational dance routines of the entire show - which was sung with true gusto and verve by Bernardo and Anita (Sigalit Feig) summing up the virtues of the New World against that of the Puerto Ricans’ homeland while that adorable number ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ produced a bout of eccentric dancing by Riff and The Jets who also pulled out all stops in ‘Jet Song’ awash with biting lyrics by Sondheim who, incidentally, made his Broadway début with this show.

A nice performance came from Peter Renz as Doc (Tony’s boss) who was not portrayed as a drugstore owner but as a sidewalk fruit-seller while Bettina Kenney (Anybodys) played her part to the full trying to be as big as the boys and, I think, succeeding! while Lieutenant Schrank (Carsten Sabrowski) and Officer Krupke (Dennis Weißert) - seen here not in uniform but as a plain-clothes and plain-spoken police officer - put in sterling performances.

But one production point that really tore at the heart-strings and one that I took away with me from this splendid production of West Side Story surrounds the delicate reading of ‘There’s A Place for Us’ in which doppelganger roles of Tony and Maria (portrayed in later life) were seen waltzing to their heart’s content while the younger couple slowly led into this lovely and poignant ballad that, I feel, is one of the most tender moments of the entire musical.

The boys in the band under the direction of Dutchman, Koen Schoots (whose work not only spans the genre of musical theatre but opera as well) cut through Bernstein’s score like a knife through butter creating a stir of exciting playing from his charges in the pit especially in those popular, upbeat and rich-sounding numbers such as ‘The Rumble’, ‘Jet Song’ and ‘Dance at the Gym’.

If this iconic and well-loved musical set New York and London alight back in the Fifties and Sixties, it has set Berlin alight, too, and at curtain-call the audience let rip with a wild elongated applause with members of the cast savouring the moment. And deservedly so!
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Bernstein: West Side Story - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese
Bernstein: West Side Story - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese
Director (Barrie Kosky - assisted by Otto Pichler)

Koen Schoots (conductor)
Chorus master (David Cavelius)
Lighting designer (Franck Evin)
Dramaturg (Johanna Wall)
Maria (Alma Sadé)
Tony (Johannes Dunz)
Riff (Christoph Jonas)
Bernardo (Lorenzo Soragni)
Anita (Sigalit Feig)
Chino (Michael Fernandez)
Doc (Peter Renz)
Officer Krupke (Dennis Weißert)
Lieutenant Schrank (Carsten Sabrowski)
Glad Hand (Kai-Uwe Fahnert)
Vocalconsort und Komparsen der Komischen Oper Berlin
Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin

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