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Tuesday, June 21, 2011


(Photo by LeAndrew Moore: Rhaea Campbell as Maria with Esewu Nobela as Tony)

Exhilarating collaboration of Durban, Cape Town and Texas talent does credit to Bernstein musical. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Tonight’s audience at the Jubilee Theatre at UKZN’s Opera Studio and Choral Academy (OSCA) was faced with a different seating configuration for the third and final performance of West Side Story. Seated along the length of the hall, we were privileged to see a cast of close on 50 talented young opera singers and dancers present an exhilarating hour-long version of Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical.

Billed as Concert Highlights, the production went much further than that, with the performers using almost the entire length of the hall as well as the sound/lighting balcony level. This gave ample space for dancing – Latin American as well as ballet – and the fight scenes were well-choreographed. You felt that you were part of the gang action, especially when the actors were no further than a few feet away!

West Side Story represents a collaboration with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Southern Methodist University (SMU), Texas, USA. The musical director and organiser is Professor Barbara Hill Moore from SMU who has visited South Africa and worked with UKZN students in past years, presenting similar collaborations every five years.

West Side Story has a formidable creative team. Working alongside Barbara Hill Moore, and also from SMU are Millicent Johnnie (director and choreographer) and Jason Smith (coach accompanist). From Cape Town came well-known former Durban faces, Gerard Samuel (Head of Dance from UCT) as dramaturge and co-choreographer and Merle Gideon (stage manager and lighting) while Durban was represented by pianist Andrew Warburton, voice coach Marc Poupard and Lionel Mkhwanazi (Lecturer, Opera Studies). Also acknowledged are Mhlaba Buthelezi and Nkululeko Freedom Ntuli, the latter providing additional choreography for the Rumble scene.

While OSCA students perform the chorister, opera and jazz parts, the dance element is provided by UCT and the eight SMU students are dancers and vocalists.

The three casts rehearsed independently for two months, joining up in Durban a bare week before the first performance. The result is a very professional and innovative production that proved - if we didn’t know it already - that opera is alive, well and thriving at OSCA!

A stand-out vocal performance came from Rhaea Campbell as Maria with Esewu Nobela matching her passion and sincerity as Tony. I was particularly moved by Rhaea's duet with Vusile Madlala in A Boy Like That and I Have a Love. Njabulo Mthimkhulu, now studying at SMU in Texas, gave a notable performance as Riff while Azola Mabutho provided the right amount of malevolent energy as Bernardo. Theresa Mbatha brought pathos to Somewhere.

The dancers were a finely honed team and I was most impressed by Magan Black and Derek Bowers, who appeared in a pas de deux, and William Constable who shone in a rumba sequence.

The Officer Krupke scene is always a welcome diversion for audiences in the ongoing tragedy of this story and tonight’s band of Jet members proved good comedy skills in this amusing number.

All credit to everyone involved in this collaboration, particularly Barbara Hill Moore. I can’t wait for the next production! – Caroline Smart