Recently the Leipzig Opera and Leipzig Ballet debuted their collaborative piece – a rendition of the classic American musical West Side Story. As a newcomer to Leipzig and theater enthusiast, I wanted to see for myself what this music-loving city could do.
West Side Story is itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the 1950s. Two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, battle over turf in New York City. Tony, a Jet, and Maria, sister to the Shark’s leader, fall in love and desperately try to run away together.
Going into the theater, I expected to see a German-language adaptation of the original show I had fallen in love with as a kid. While the storyline, as far as I could tell, was close to the original, and the songs were original (performed in English), much of the show took me by surprise.
Though the original piece was set in the 1950s, the Leipzig version very clearly was not. Costumes and hair were much more reminiscent of modern day Germany. Bright colors and flowing dresses were replaced with black slinky dresses, or even shorts for the Jet ladies. Perhaps this modern take on 50s style was mentioned in the program, but as an English speaker, I was only left to wonder what the costume director had in mind. And from there the costumer’s questionable choices only got worse…
Clowns. There were two clowns in the production for seemingly no reason at all. With fluffy rainbow wigs and jeans decorated with American flags, these clowns were the belles of the ball where Tony and Maria first fell in love. I wasn’t sure at first if it was a joke or a tip of the hat on the recent supreme court decision, but there they were in the middle of the playbill as if added intentionally from the beginning.
Nightmare-inducing patriotic clowns aside, by far the weirdest scene for me was the song “America.” As soon as we had purchased our tickets, I was walking around the apartment singing this tune in a Puerto Rican accent in anticipation. My excitement for this song was then ruined by what can only be described as German bastardization of American culture. During the song, a huge American flag backdrop was lowered and out came every American stereotypical figure you could imagine. Two sets of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (one set dressed for a ball and the other dressed for vacation) were dancing around with Superman, Spiderman, Cookie Monster, and Mario! I was really taken aback. It was as if they were saying American culture can be summarized by these children’s characters. It was simplistic; it was juvenile; it was viscerally offensive. That was the lowest point for me as an audience member, but it mostly improved from there.
Ignoring the modernization and bastardization, the show was incredible. Just as I had hoped, I was able to understand enough of the German dialogue from context to be able to follow and enjoy the show. And even if I couldn’t understand it, the dancing by itself was enough to keep me entertained. The sheer athleticism of the dancers was remarkable, and definitely my favorite part. As a singer, you might have expected me to rave about the musicality of the Opera performers. Musically speaking, it was a sound performance (pun intended), but as a native English speaker, it was distracting to hear the disconnect between the broken English words, neigh syllables, and the emotion of the story. By the end of it, I was seriously contemplating starting a business of teaching the American singing accent.
Overall it was beautiful. Weird, but beautiful. If you remove the crazy costumes and overlook the accented English (which, really, who am I to judge), it was a hit out of the park! And the performers could feel it. They were so proud of their performance that they must have taken at least 30 bows! They took their initial bows and the curtain went down. When the curtain was raised up, I was expecting an encore performance of… something. Anything. Instead it was an encore of silent bows. The ensemble moved downstage, raised up their arms together, took a bow, and went back upstage…over and over and over with not even music playing. (Someone please tell me if this is a German thing…)
I hope my review didn’t scare you away. It really was a magnificent show. I was just surprised by much of it. Now that you know what to expect, I highly recommend that you see it for yourself. The show is playing intermittently throughout the year, as late as next June. See the Leipzig Opera House schedule for details.
For an alternative review from LeipGlo, read here!
I hope you enjoyed reading! Tell me what you think in the comments!