West Side spectacle

West Side Story (Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 24 – August 22

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. And Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment’s production of the classic recreates its beautiful blend of all of these elements in a vibrant and textured take that balances the contrasts of its story of gangs and love.

The plot, which borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is of the doomed love story of two characters who fall in love despite being from enemy houses. On the streets of 1950s Upper West Side New York these houses are the urban gangs of the Jets and their rivals, the new Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks. Former Jets member Tony (Nigel Huckle) meets and instantly falls in love with Maria (Sophie Salvesani), the young sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (Temujin Tera). The two attempt to keep their love a secret, however, as the feuding gangs prepare for a rumble, their loyalties are tested with heartbreaking consequences.

The musical starts in a glorious fashion with the ‘Prologue’ opening dance number featuring the Jets’ dancing, which both sets the tone and arcs to the rumble that ends a lengthy Act One. Director/Choreographer Joey McKneely’s demanding routines remain true to the original style and are slick and spirited as, in the opening number, the gang members fly through the air as they enact athletic yet graceful ballet moves and long extensions, but also frenetic energy, like the fast-footed feats of the roughneck Pontipees in the barn-raising dance sequence of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”.

Dance represents an integral part of the storytelling to signpost the tension between characters and to express the excitement of budding romance, in contrast to later frustration and grief. And the choreographic storytelling is skilfully executed by the highly-talented ensemble. Every 1950s beatnik finger snap, flick of the wrist, sharp stomping foot and long leap is precise and evocative. The Sharks girls’ sizzle in a lively, Latin-inspired ‘America’ of swishing skirts and fiery flamenco foot-stomping, as they in-turn mock their current world and that from which they have come in trade of one island for another.

There is chorographic grace amongst the rapid moves of the show’s rich jazzy numbers, thanks to a score that is filled with moments of light and shade. Lyrical ballet moves convey romance and innocence, with Act Two’s ‘Somewhere’ serving as an alternative reality highlight with both Sharks and Jets gang members, costumed in all-white, entering a magical ballet sequence, “An American in Paris” style. Making full use of the stage in sensitive echo of the earlier, explosive ‘Dance at the Gym’ they use a circle configuration and contemporary stylings of light-hearted, carefree movement to morph from small groups to build to a larger harmonious one.

The whole show is very choreographed; not just the dance sequences, but how the dancers move across the stage, and how the staging changes. Several large set pieces recreate 1950s New York with its synonymous apartment fire escapes, seamlessly joining as necessary to create a Juliet balcony for Tony to scale.

Lighting is rich, awashing the stage with a lush blush to soften the lovers’ first meeting and darkening its violet in low key lighting foreshadow of what is to come as they fantasise about being together and married in ‘One Hand, One Heart’. Renate Schmitzer’s costume design emphasises the youth and innocence of Tony and Maria against the bold palettes of the different gangs, which see the passionate Puerto Ricans in vibrant reds and purple, and the angry Jets in more muted earth tones and denim.

There is a clear youthful energy to this “West Side Story”. Connor McMahon is a memorable Baby John, the youngest member of the Jets gang and Nathan Pavey displays an impressive stage presence as self-styled expert Snow Boy, both in dance and comic moments alike. Angelina Thomson is sensational as Maria’s feisty friend Anita, who is girlfriend of Bernardo. Not only is her dancing exciting, with her use of costume movement only adding to its fervour, but the physicality with which she enlivens the emotion of her angry tirade to Maria against Tony, ‘A Boy Like That’, is palpable.

Huckle brings an immediate softness to the idealistic Tony and his delivery of Act One’s romantic ‘Maria’, when Tony learns the name of the girl with whom he’s fallen in love, is beautifully operatic in match with the score. Salvesani also has a stunning voice. Her Maria is pure hearted and innocent, but also strong-minded, and her solid vocals see us treated to a powerful ‘I Have a Love’, assertion to Anita as to the power of the feeling.

While the book of “West Side Story” may not hold up as well as the score, the musical is still a beautiful meld of Broadway dance and opera. Leonard Bernstein’s legendary score dazzles in its blend of jazz, Latin and classical inspirations to create definitive musical theatre numbers. Even the upbeat ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, allows the cast members in smaller roles to have a slapstick moment in the spotlight as they play-act in vaudeville style, interaction with the local beat cop who has no patience for the gangs’ conflict, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim’s playful lyrics. And under Isaac Hayward’s Musical Direction, the orchestra is dynamic in its delivery of Bernstein’s memorable score, resulting in well-deserved ovation at the show’s end.

“West Side Story” is a must-see musical event for both long-time fans and those new to the classic alike. It presents a faithful revival of the original work with spectacle, energy and vibrancy. Its rich score in both vivacious in its moments, but also lingering its emotional melodies while the rest of the world fades away. And while its star-crossed love story may end with sadness, the electrifying journey to its tragedy is one that Brisbane audiences are privileged to have the opportunity to experience.  

Photos c/o – Will Russell

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