Photos – Jeff Busby
In any field there are the standards, the yardstick by which all others in that arena are measured and in musical theatre – many regard West Side Story as that benchmark. The 1957 collaboration between some of Broadways biggest names, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins has, for over 60 years, been sacredly revered while simultaneously sparking a theatrical billboard lexicon – ‘Iconic’, ‘Classic’, ‘Masterpiece’, ‘Timeless.’
Opera Australia has certainly been wheeling out the musical big guns of late, South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady and most recently Evita, so adding West Side Story to the revival list is not at all unexpected. What is interesting however, is that the company is presently staging two different productions of West Side Story, this one starting out in Melbourne and set for performances around Australia and the other, currently playing outdoors on Sydney harbour. It would be incredible, as I know some will, to be in a position to look at both productions for comparison.
I am no stranger to musical theatre and despite abundant familiarity with the score of this famous show, I sheepishly confess that this is indeed the first production of West Side Story I have ever seen. I will also confess that the basis of my reluctance to see it has been due to the very watchful eye the estates of some of the original creative team keep to ensure a production never strays too far from the original. I have always believed therefore that any production would feel like an exceedingly dated workhorse.
Despite some creative stifling from up above, I am prepared to concede that I was somewhat mistaken.
As a ‘modern’ retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the base material book and score of West Side Story remains absolutely rock solid and while Director/Choreographer Joey McKneely gives the show a vibrant new staging, it is the use of Jerome Robbins’ original ground-breaking choreography that really holds up here in understandable ‘leave it alone’ adoration. Melbourne’s State Theatre stage is magnificent and seeing dancers of this calibre float effortlessly across its expanse is both breath taking and exhilarating.
During creation of the original production, Jerome Robbins reportedly filled company notice boards with news articles of ongoing New York gang violence and discouraged those playing in the shows rival gangs from even socialising in an effort to create friction and gritty on-stage authenticity. The standard of dance in this production is outstanding without question however, some elements and attributes of this very pretty ensemble could perhaps benefit from Robbins aforementioned tough love because these gangs currently feel, as New York itself does these days, a little too gentrified.
West Side Story has always been noted for its dance content, again with Jerome Robbins delighting in the offer of an 8 over 4 week dance rehearsal to drill his machines but the book and score of the show are also incredibly demanding and give real credence to the term ‘Triple Threat.’ Unfortunately for this production, this is where things go a little wrong. Aside from those playing some of the more mature roles, many in this very young cast are making their professional stage debut and I am afraid it shows. Opera Australia is to be commended for providing an extraordinary opportunity and platform for an undeniably talented group of very young emerging performers but with ticket prices for some performances nudging the $200 mark, things do feel a little out of kilter.
All main players here make for an enjoyable evening but deserving of note in particular are Sophie Salvesani as a very strong and beautifully sung Maria, Chloé Zuel is a perfectly placed and feisty Anita and Lyndon Watts gives Bernado some real Latino machismo.
West Side Story is a classic for good reason and remains an extraordinary and deserved legacy for its original creative team. Depicting the ugly behaviour from the youth of previous immigrants towards the youth of the most recently arrived is an enduring element of West Side Story that will ensure marketing slogans like ‘Timeless’ continue to sadly cut through with nodding despair.
Opera Australia & GWB Entertainment Present the BB Group Production of
West Side Story
lyrics Stephen Sondheim | book Arthur Laurents | music Leonard Bernstein
Director/Choreographer Joey McKneely
Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Rd VIC
Dates: 10 – 28 April, 2019