William Shakespeare borrowed the family feud scenario from a sixteen-century story and called it Romeo and Juliet. Arthur Laurents raised the bar by re-setting it in mid-twentieth century New York. Leonard Bernstein shifted the bar even higher with a score that conjured the pulsing throb of discontent. And Stephen Sondheim conceived lyrics that picked up that throb and let the plot soar. Placed into the creative hands of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, this “iconic dance musical” hit Broadway with a ‘bang’ in 1957, ran for over 700 performances, and was made into an award-winning movie in 1961.
Now hailed as “the greatest Broadway musical of all time”, West Side Story comes to the Sydney Opera House in a production that has wowed audiences throughout Australia and overseas. And no wonder! Directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, an incredibly talented cast bring Laurents’ characters to vivid life as they sing and dance to the Opera Australia orchestra conducted by the magical baton of Donald Chan.
From its opening chords until its last sad moments, this West Side Story pays dazzling homage to the brilliance of its creators. It’s fast, tight, moving … and polished to a sophisticated theatrical shine. From fight, to rumble, to love scenes, to a beautiful spectral ballet, the production finds the pulsating essence of the music, the poignancy of the plot and the naïve vulnerability of characters who struggle to find their place in the sordid tenements and alleys of the Upper West neighbourhood of New York City.
Set designer Paul Gallis and lighting designer Peter Halbsgut use giant sepia images of 1950s New York skyscrapers and iconic buildings as a backdrop for moving scaffold ‘tenements’ that stretch high above the stage. Light filters through them, catching and refracting at times, gently isolating an area at others, always brilliantly evoking fraught feelings and simmering tension. The suggestion of incandescence in the ballet scene is especially evocative.
Unfortunately Todd Jacobsson was ill on opening night, but the role of Tony was ably – and very successfully – filled by Daniel Assetta. Assetta is an accomplished performer whose Tony is hopefully buoyed by the feeling that Something’s Coming. That ‘something’ is Maria, played with naïve, artless trust by Sophie Salvesani. Together they portray the innocent optimism and desperate despair of their bitter-sweet “star-cross’d” passion, their voices blending beautifully in the touching notes of “Somewhere”and “One Hand One Heart”.
Chloé Zuel gives a vibrant performance as Anita, carefully mothering Maria in one moment, swinging powerfully into the demanding choreography of “America”in another, and finally the finding the heartfelt anguish of “A Boy Like That”.
Noah Mullins and Lyndon Watts face each other tautly as Riff and Bernardo. Wired and edgy, they lead their rival gangs in fast, deft dance routines and tense dialogue. Every gang member is in every moment, the tension emanating physically in time with the orchestra pulsating below them. Molly Bugeja is artfully lively as the tomboyish Anybody’s.
Singling out these performers in no way diminishes the way the cast work so closely and dynamically together. Energy and vitality pulse through every routine, every song, every character in this production. West Side Story is musical theatre at its best – and this productionof it is absolutely dazzling.