Sunday, August 25, 2019

WEST SIDE STORY - Opera Australia - Sydney Opera House

Directed by Joey McKneely – Musical Direction by Donald Chan
Set designed by Paul Gallis – Costumes designed by Renate Schmitzer
Lighting designed by Peter Halbsgut – Sound Designed by Rick Clarke
Presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 20th August to 6th October 2019

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

An acknowledged musical theatre masterpiece, “West Side Story”, along with a short list of other musicals you could count on one hand, pushed the boundaries of the form. This reworking of the familiar Romeo and Juliet story, now transferred to 1950’s New York, with young  street gangs replacing the feuding families of the original, boasts a thrilling score by Leonard Bernstein which miraculously captures the excitement and tensions of the city in which it is set, lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim that convert the vernacular of the warring  New York gangs into poetry, and most of all, the extraordinary movement repertoire created by Jerome Robbins for his brilliant dances, all of which still excite after more than 60 years.

Each component is remarkable, but together, especially when performed as well as they are in this production, are guaranteed to induce goose bumps and feel as fresh and inventive as when they were first premiered in 1957.

The Jets in "West Side Story" 

Director, Joey McKneely, who also reproduced the Jerome Robbins choreography, has drawn together an attractive young cast, each around the age of the character they’re portraying.  Some are making their professional theatre debuts in this production so obviously dance prowess was a paramount consideration in the casting for this work. The dancing throughout is brilliant with obvious attention being lavished on making sure every phrase and detail is correctly executed by the young dancers who attack the choreography with style and pizzazz.  The results are exhilarating. 

However, the acting is less convincing and despite obvious commitment, some lack the experience and acting skills necessary to invest their roles with sufficient gravitas, often resorting to shouting and posturing rather than being immersed in their characterisations.

Replacing Todd Jacobsson who was ill on opening night, Daniel Assetta stepped into the role as Tony. Though he sang attractively he had trouble sustaining some of the top notes in his solos, possibly through nervousness, but had more success with his duets with Sophie Salvesani (Maria) which were quite lovely. However his acting tended to stop when the music did, and there was little real chemistry between them. 

Sophie Salvesani was a lovely Maria, bringing a clear sweet soprano voice to the role, and acting affectingly, particularly in the finale scene when, standing over Tony’s lifeless body, she threatens to shoot the onlookers.

Both Noah Mullins and Lyndon Watts as the gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo, brought plenty of energy and attitude to their roles, but it is Chloe Zuel as the fiery Anita, who digs below the surface to create a truly memorable characterisation, acting, singing and dancing with assurance.

The Paul Gallis setting for "West Side Story" 

Peter Gallis’s towering metal settings are effective in evoking the ladders and scaffolding of the New York landscape, and Renate Schmitzer’s attractive costumes are unusually colourful. However, it is the music, brilliantly interpreted by 31 members of the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of Donald Chan, who, reputedly has conducted more than 3000 performances of “West Side Story”, together with the brilliant dancing of the cast, which are the stars of this production and which remain in the mind well after the curtain has descended. 

                                                  Photos by Jeff Busby

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.

"West Side Story" comes to the Canberra Theatre from 10th - 27th October 2019