Monday, September 9, 2019

Choreography carries West Side to great success

West Side Story
Opera Australia, in association with GWB Entertainment and the BB Group
Sydney Opera House
Saturday September 7, 2019

Reviewed by Tony Magee

OPERA AUSTRALIA's production of West Side Story is a dancer’s show. In fact I’d go so far as to say it is an exquisitely choreographed ballet, with dialogue and singing, rather than a fully balanced piece of musical theatre.

In that regard, it pays greater homage to Prokofiev’s setting of Romeo and Juliet, much more than it does to Shakespeare, Laurents, Bernstein or Sondheim.

Photo by Jeff Busby

As musical theatre, the star of the show is Chloe Zuel in her portrayal of Anita. With a perfect balance of equally and highly skilled singing, dancing and acting, she brings to the role everything required for a fully professional and stunningly portrayed characterisation.

In the role of Maria, Sophie Salvesani displays a beautiful soprano voice, with superb diction and highly accurate pitch, leaning more towards opera than musical theatre in style.

The young male cast of gang members and the young female cast as their girlfriends or sisters, are all in top form with regards to enthusiasm and dance skills. A joy to watch, they were all captivating in stunningly choreographed and executed dance sequences. Timing, precision and unity were all first rate.

As a singing ensemble, the Jets shone most brightly with “Gee, Officer Krupke” in Act II.

By contrast, senior cast members Ritchie Singer as bar tender Doc and Paul Dawber as Lt. Schrank showed what experience and professionalism brings to the stage. Molly Bugeja as the frustrated tom-boy “Anybodys”, was also excellent in her role.

Photo by Jeff Busby

My only real disappointment was the presentation of the song “Somewhere” which can arguably be the high point of the show. However, it was sung off stage  - quite well, but not with the sincerity, passion, drama and boldness required of a heartbroken, mystified and devastated ”American Mother”, as she weeps over yet another tragic example of so-called “boys will be boys”. Marilyn Horne - we needed you!

In fact, this production of West Side Story presents three murders and a pack-rape more as one of life’s inconveniences than the tragedy, horror and law-breaking devastation that it actually is.

As for the other major and minor principals, the singing and acting was adequate, something which I find at odds with the title of the company that presented it - “Opera Australia”.

Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant score was superbly played by the orchestra, under the direction of Donald Chan.

Musically, the composition of West Side Story is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. OA’s current production relies almost entirely on Jerome Robbins’ choreography, as interpreted by Joey McKneely and the superb dancing talents of the cast, to carry it to the highly enjoyable success that it is.

OA's production of West Side Story will transfer to the Canberra Theatre from October 10th - 27th.