Review: West Side Story

Slick spectacle with astonishing dance numbers

By Leeor Adar

1950s ‘Murica. Nothing quite says New York, New York, like West Side Story. It’s the kind of American dreaming particular to the imaginings of Jerome Robbins, the original director and choreographer of the beloved and memorable work. Instead of a Miller-esque fatal flaw, our characters operate in a world that has marginalised them, and they exist between missing the past and wanting a future. Migrants, lovers, hooligans, West Side Story is a warm embrace for musical theatre lovers everywhere.

I’m as surprised as the next person to see Opera Australia take on the collaborative work of heavyweights Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. It’s pure musical sugar, with numbers that are hyper and tantalising in a way that opera often turns away from. I am of course intrigued, as Opera Australia wades into the commercial realm to reach out to a broader audience perhaps. I want grit from West Side Story and Bernstein’s score, but instead we are treated to something lightweight, which does not do justice to the grandeur of Opera Australia, and certainly not the yearning power of this excellent and nuanced musical.

Director and choreographer Joey McKneely’s production has some astonishing dance numbers which render the music almost secondary. The central issues in the work concern its casting (and not in this instance the whitewashing that the Sydney production was accused of). The clash of an operatic coloratura soprano Maria (Sophie Salvesani) with a pure musical theatre voice for Tony (Todd Jacobsson) is hard to move beyond. Jacobsson is more a sweet romantic than former Jet, struck by the lightning bolt of infatuation. Despite this, I had chills during Jacobsson’s “Maria”, which is essentially to music theatre what La Bohème’s “Che gelida manina” is to opera. Even so, Salvesani has a rich and enveloping voice, that is ill-matched to her co-star.

The band of Jets, led by a charismatic Noah Mullins as Riff, overall look more like young awkward schoolboys than a gang of hardened street rats, and they are outmatched as they move between voluptuous and highly sexualised women. In contrast, the Sharks, led by a convincing Lyndon Watts as Bernardo, are muscular, intense and commanding on stage. Wonderfully, the Puerto Rican women are an absolute force on stage. Outshining all other characters in this production, Chloé Zuel as Anita is breathtaking in a memorable and electric performance. “America” is the pinnacle of perfection and quality I wanted out of West Side Story, and unfortunately it is one of the few moments I was nodding my head in joy. The Jets redeem themselves in a playful “Gee, Officer Krupke”, which joyfully washes over the salty reality of their poverty and troubled homes, but I was very much drawn less to the music than the physicality of the show.

Paul Gallis’ set design is in itself a character in this production, with looming grey photographs of Manhattan and a shanty-town of wooden pilings to show the decay of this part of the iconic city. The gloom of the set powerfully contrasts with the gorgeous costuming of Renate Schmitzer whose smashing array of decadent hues, which are complimented by the rich lighting design of Peter Halbsgut, set alight the already blazing dance numbers.

In contrast, one strikingly dark place this production took the audience to was the terrifying assault of Anita by the Jets, witnessed by Jets-wannabe tomboy Anybodys (Molly Bugeja). After the violence the stage is quiet and Anybodys runs away screaming, suddenly voicing another cruel reality of the streets.

West Side Story remains as topical as ever, with gun violence, sexual violence and racism rampant in our world, it remains an ode to the oppressed and cyclical entrapment of those living a life of poverty and crime. Despite this, its musical message of hope for a better future and greater opportunity remains just as strong.

I’d like to see a future production of West Side Story by Opera Australia where it will hold its own and wrestle away from the slick spectacle of commercial musical theatre and find something to contribute of its own. Even so, West Side Story makes for an entertaining night with some memorable performances and staging.

 

West Side Story will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne until 28 April before touring to Sydney, Wellington, Canberra and Adelaide. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 889 278.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

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