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Review - West Side Story: fresh, energetic, strong and vibrant

By Pauline Smith



West Side Story

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment

Directed by Joey McKneely

Season from 24 July. Duration: Two hours 20 minutes with interval. Bookings: www.qpac.com.au or phone 136 246


West Side Story is one of those timeless classics, recreated for a new generation, and losing none of the passion of the original.

The show starts with the Jets and Sharks performing a fully danced prologue which sets the scene of the tension between the two gangs of who ‘rules’ the neighbourhood. The words ‘Beat it’ uttered during this face-off, immediately reminded me of Michael Jackson’s video.

For those who don’t know, West Side Story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, except set in a run-down district on the Upper West Side of New York in the 1950’s. The Jets (born Americans with Polish roots) rule the roost and have an immense hatred of the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) who have moved into the hood. The Sharks similarly return that hatred which leads to many altercations between the two, and the eventual tragic rumble.

Into this mix are thrown the two lovers, Tony and Maria, both from opposite “sides of the fence”.

Tony (Nigel Huckle) was formerly the leader of the Jets and now works at Doc’s, the local drugstore. Maria (Sophie Salvesani) is the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo, who has chosen Chino as her husband. Huckle and Salvesani were an excellent pairing on stage as the fateful lovers. Their vocals were superbly balanced in clarity, power and harmony. Huckle’s solos were a delight to the ears, reminiscent of one of the tenor greats, Mario Lanza.

My favourite song from this show has always been America. This was ably performed by Anita (Angelina Thomson) and the girls where they sing about how great it is to be in America to counter one of the group who is feeling homesick. Anita is also the girlfriend of Bernardo (Temujin Tera). Thomson’s vocals were strong, and she portrayed the strong character of Anita well. Tera was also equally well cast as Bernardo, who comes across as a slick, hard character, but tows the line as far as Anita is concerned.

Riff (Noah Mullins), who is the leader of the Jets, completes the lead cast. Riff is Tony’s best friend who encourages him to come along to the dance so that they can ‘take on’ the Sharks. Mullins was a great Riff, portraying all the rough edges that goes with the role.

Another character who was prominent is Anybodys (Molly Bugeja). She is persistent in her efforts to get accepted into the gang, not wanting to be one of the ‘girls’. However, as things devolve towards the rumble and the aftermath that follows, she is not prepared for how depraved the boys behave. This petite actor was a bundle of energy and amusement, contrasting nicely against the boys.

Throughout the entire show, the choreography (Joey McKneely) was fresh, energetic, strong and vibrant - particularly the dance off between the two groups at the gym dance. An amusing scene is also created where the local police officer, Lt Schrank, tries to encourage the two groups to dance together. I found the costuming for this scene interesting, in that the Sharks were colourfully dressed, whereas the Jets, though dressed up for the occasion, had a grey-silver jacket and the splashes of colour came from orange ties and their girls’ dresses. Almost a monochromatic contrast.

I particularly loved the choreography for this scene as the groups whirled around the stage to an equally strong piece of music. But I would have to say that the Sharks won that particular round.

The set was three-storied, industrial-style, catwalks and balconies with fire ladders that dropped to the ground as is common in New York. The set was beautifully balanced by backdrops of New York cityscapes and street scenes which set the tone for the individual scenes.

The orchestra, presided over by Musical Supervisor, Donald Chan, was just perfect. The music was not so loud that it overpowered the singers, but complemented singing and dancing alike beautifully. The only downside to the entire performance was that it was difficult at times to hear what was being said or sung on stage as the mics were a bit quiet.

I enjoyed this show, knowing most of the songs, but for me, I am not sure that it lived up to the hype. However, that is not taking away from the immensely talented actors on stage, nor the direction. It is just not one of the best shows I have ever seen.