Monday, October 14, 2019

West Side Story

West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins.  BB Group (Mannheim, Germany) production presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment.

Canberra Theatre Centre October 12 – 27, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 13

Photos by Jeff Busby

Jets men (not in order):
Joshua Taylor, Nicholas Collins, Christian Ambesi,
Nathan Pavey, Jake O'Brien, Blake Tuke,
Sebastian Golenko
Sharks men  (not in order):
Anthony Garcia, Temujin Tera, Matthew Jenon,
Jason Yang-Westland, Brady Kitchingham

Sophie Salvesani and Todd Jacobsson
Maria and Tony
 This production of West Side Story is a great example of museum theatre.  I mean this as a compliment because to update such an iconic show from the 1950s might not make much sense when teenagers today spend their time instagramming and sexting instead of rumbling and grooving on the street in gangs.

Nowadays we worry that the young are cut off from learning how to manage physical social contact.  Though I was not in New York in 1955 when Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and the then 25-year-old Stephen Sondheim wrote the choreography, story, music and song lyrics about the West Side, I knew well of the ‘bovver boys’ and ‘Teddy boys’ in my native London, and of the ‘bodgies’ and ‘widgies’ here in Australia fighting on the beach at Manly.

What impressed me about the young people performing on stage last night was how well they, in their dancing and their acting, were so clearly teenagers taking all those silly terrible risks.  At least sexting, I hope, is less likely to lead to murder.

Though in this performance I felt I was kept at a little distance emotionally through the first Act, even up to the murders just before interval – perhaps partly because the music and songs are so well-known, and the skills in recreating Robbins’ original choreography took my attention – the final shorter Act 2 made its emotional mark.

It was not a matter of sentimental sorrow for Tony’s death and Maria’s loss.  Sophie Salvesani brought out the great sense of waste. Not only of three young men’s lives, but for herself having to live on – and for the whole community knowing that reconciliation is so fragile.

I realised then what Jerome Robbins had done in updating William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Juliet, in taking her own life, leaves the Montague and Capulet families to grieve and reconcile as a memorial – a neat and positive conclusion.  But Maria, who frighteningly fails to kill herself when the pistol that killed Tony misfires, then cannot try again.  She, unlike Juliet, must live with the consequences of her own and others’ actions, whether her conflicting communities genuinely reconcile or not.

Though Jets and Sharks carry out Tony’s body, the future is not secure.  As the Synopsis in the Program says, they “carry Tony’s dead body off the stage together as if in procession – a gesture of hope for reconciliation.”  But is it no more than a gesture?  This is a messy and not necessarily positive conclusion.  Robbins was more realist than Shakespeare, I think.

The quality of the production was excellent in all departments.  Because the production credits list includes designers and directors as ‘associates’ and ‘originals’ it’s difficult to be sure of who to give credit to most.

The balance between the orchestra, in the pit, and the singers worked very well.  It was good to hear a live performance of instruments and singers.  Musical supervisor/conductor Donald Chan’s expertise has seen him conduct more than 3000 performances of this production of West Side Story around the world.  His work, with associate musical director Anthony Barnhill, was ably supported by original sound designer, Rick Clarke, with Jonny Keating and Anthony Craythorn making it all happen.

The set design was quite remarkable, with projected backdrops of New York behind three storey high scaffolding ‘tenements’ which were moved on, off and around amazingly smoothly.  [ If you would like to compare with the original 1957 set, see Gallis from The Netherlands was the designer, but I would like to congratulate the mechanists (headed by Tony Bergin) who made the scene changes a delight.

I am not surprised to see costumes which brought the characters so wonderfully to life, especially for the dance sequences, having been designed by Renate Schmitzer.  The white costumed sequence was particularly stunning, making such a contrast to the standard street dress of ordinary life. The Australian touring production, with wardrobe, hair, wigs and make-up headed up by Jennifer Hall, Stephanie Meilak and David Jennings, is dedicated to her memory, after her very recent death after a short illness in her home in Ulm on 15 March, 2019, noted by Detlef Brandenburg:

“Renate Schmitzer's costumes were never just "something to wear". They were always an interpretation of the character, her character and sometimes her quirks. Thus, they made a substantial contribution to the characteristics of the characters - and met the director's work halfway, as it were.”
[translated from ]

Lighting designed by equally prominent internationally, Peter Halbsgut, took us from the high brilliance of Jerome Robbins’ most energetic street dance to the awful darkness of the rape of Anita – both solidly practical and clear in its emotional effects.

So finally to come to overall direction and performance, the story is just as complex.  Director Joey McKneely, a one-time student of Jerome Robbins and the one to reproduce the master’s choreography, with associate choreographer Jaquelyn Scafidi-Allsopp and resident director/choreographer Brendan Yeates, have given the Australian cast the precision, the timing and the humour to create the character of all the young performers as the crowd of teenagers racing ahead of themselves from childishness to the edge of adulthood.

Every young performer, all singing and dancing, had their clearly defined personalities as in the original production in 1957; as did the adults Paul Dawber (Lt Shrank), Beryn Schwert (Officer Krupke) and Ritchie Singer (as the saddened pharmicist, Doc).  The leads – Maria (Sophie Salvesani), Anita (Chloe Zuel), Tony (Todd Jacobsson) and Riff (Noah Mullins) were not allowed to stand too much out from the crowd – making the point as I see it about the theme of community.

On this point, I think, there is a difference between Robbins’ original conception of the drama compared with the famous movie, awarded ten Oscars in 1961, where stars were the focus.

I prefer the stage production for sincerity and integrity.

Jets women (not in order):
Molly Bugeja, Natasha O'Hehir, Angelica di Clemente
Taylah Small, Sarah Dimas
Sharks women (not in order):
Olivia Carniato, Nikki Croker, Amba Fewster, Ariana Mazzeo
with Jade Coutts

West Side Story cast and set design