x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Review: West Side Story

Dubai provides real talent in this production of Bernstein's masterpiece.

Sharks and Jets dance at Ductac.
Sharks and Jets dance at Ductac.

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It's fair to say that gang warfare is not a common occurrence on the streets of Dubai (or certainly not on any streets I've seen). But until this Saturday, the top floor of the Mall of the Emirates will become the scene for nightly battles between two of the world's most famous rival factions.

The Sharks and the Jets, New York teenage gangs who have failed to see eye to eye since they first took Broadway by storm in 1957, are now taking their infamous rumbles to the stage at Ductac for the theatre's second annual summer production: West Side Story.

Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein's famous musical twist on Romeo and Juliet may be heading towards its 60th birthday, but if the opening performance on Tuesday night was anything to go by, it's far from losing its freshness. The movement on stage was slick and the singing powerful and confident.

The action switched seamlessly between all-out dance-offs that became well-choreographed blizzards of colours and backflips, to slower, more graceful scenes between the two star-crossed lovers destined to find "happily-ever-after" a troublesome concept.

Among the 55 or so cast members, amazingly only four - flown out especially - come with a sizeable backlog of stage experience. Both Michael Rouse (Tony) and Elisa Doughty (Maria) boast an impressive catalogue of international productions and their near-flawless vocals were perfectly suited to the lead roles.

Leading The Jets into action was Julien Essex-Spurrier (Riff), whose enthusiasm and boundless energy was more than enough to ensure his gang were rumble-ready. Arguably, Shona White's performance as Anita, the Puerto Rican girlfriend of the head Shark Bernardo, was the stand-out of the main cast, keeping her fellow Latina ladies in check while providing the main vocal support for some of the show's most famous musical moments (which included a rather spectacular rendition of America).

But with such stellar performances from the locally based cast, aged from 11 upwards, who had come through auditions in May and three weeks of intense theatre workshops and rehearsals, it was sometimes difficult to tell the professional from the amateur.

Clad in checked shirts, vests and tank-tops (not all at the same time), the Jets were an impressive bunch of would-be hoodlums. Fifteen-year-old Sammy Moore's fantastic turn as Baby John delivered some of the show's more comical lines, while Luke Britton's Action and Vincent Barker's A-Rab offered much of the aggression. Another star turn came from the 13-year-old Sarah Frenchman, who played the near-fearless tomboy Anybodys.

On the other side of the yard, Rey Edward Docena displayed some fierce footwork and an equally fierce tongue as the red-shirted Bernardo, as did Keith Fernandez (Chino). Although the Shark girls all put in fine shows, Janine Bensouda Zack's performance as Rosalia stood out, particularly in her famed musical longing for her homeland.

Providing rhythmical support for the cast were eight members of the Dubai-based BNF Dance Company, whose presence on stage helped energise some of the more flamboyant dance routines.

Not missing a beat, the BNF's flawless timing occasionally highlighted the odd lack of conviction in a high kick or out-of-step footwork from the cast, but these were few and far between.

A minor microphone issue cropped up in the opening scenes, with volume levels sounding either too high or too low. Riff's microphone appeared to stop working altogether, which was an annoying situation given that he had most of the opening lines and songs. After a short while, however, the sound technicians sorted it out and are likely to ensure the situation doesn't happen again.

In all, it was a tremendous effort that did credit to the original and the songs - such as Tonight, Maria and I Feel Pretty - that have become classics on their own. The action on stage was, at times, exhilarating, and even the most tuneless audience member is likely to have found at least one limb tapping throughout the colourful Dance at the Gym scene. Huge credit must go to Sarah Miles's choreography, plus the direction of Joseph Fowler.

Even those who haven't seen West Side Story before should know - given that it's roughly based on Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers - how the story ends. But despite the famously tragic conclusion having graced countless stages across the world for centuries, it's still definitely worth viewing again.

West Side Story might not reflect current gang culture (the last time we checked, the Bloods and the Crips - despite a similar appreciation of colours - didn't have big dance-offs), but it's a show that will undoubtedly remain a favourite long into the future. Hopefully, at some point, it will return to the UAE and find a similar pool of talent waiting to take part.

West Side Story is showing until Saturday at Ductac, with performances at 7.30pm and extra performances on Friday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets are available from the Ductac box office: 04 341 4777