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Review: West Side Story at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Review by Rosie Niven

It seemed everything aligned perfectly for Handa Opera’s latest production on Sydney Harbour on Friday evening - clear skies, warm weather, and an excitable crowd dressed to the nines, ready to delight in the revival of West Side Story, after a successful run in 2019. The only thing needed to complete the evening was a high quality production, and the creative team certainly did not disappoint.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and set in 1950s New York, West Side Story follows the tale of two young lovers, Tony and Maria, who connect passionately despite their associations with opposing gangs - the White American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Believing that their love can transcend the deep rift between their communities, they begin a tumultuous entanglement that quickly becomes their downfall. 

Leading this ill-fated love story are Nina Korbe as Maria and Billy Bourchier as Tony, two emerging talents that shine equally throughout the production. While there are some chemistry challenges with their voices (Korbe an operatic soprano and Bourchier a tenor who leans heavily into musical theatre), individually their voices are show-stopping. The standout performance of the night was Kimberley Hodgson as Maria’s fiery sister-in-law Anita, whose powerful presence drew the eye in every scene, and commanding voice filled the cavernous space of Sydney harbour with ease. 

Although some diction challenges from the ensemble resulted in songs such as ‘America’ losing their impact, the massive cast overall highlighted the quality of Australia’s performing arts scene, presenting the opening night audience with an experience worth writing home about. 

With the book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this work has strong origins, and in the hands of capable Director Francesca Zambello, it continues to shine. Backed by confident musical direction from Guy Simpson, who leads an impressive team of 28 musicians, and a striking celebration of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography from revival choreographer Kiira Schmidt Carper, every element of this production feels carefully considered.

Set designer Brian Thomson invites us into the world of West Side Story with a fluid set that perfectly complements the Sydney skyline - colourful graffiti jumps from the grungy space, and subway carriages move across the stage creating a giant playground for the young gang members to tussle on. Particularly striking is a rotating two-story apartment block that provides a home for the pivotal balcony scene, and seamlessly allows us inside Maria’s bedroom where she shares with her friends her plans for marriage. 

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes serve not only to create a clear division between the Jets and the Sharks, but to add a vibrancy to the dark outdoor areas where many of the interactions between the two take place. The carefully curated kaleidoscope of colour lit up the night, amplified by fluid movements from the ensemble as the opposing groups come together and are ripped apart. Equally contributing to the vibrancy of the space is John Rayment’s dynamic lighting design, separating the expansive space into different worlds that jump out of the darkness. 

Although the broad familiarity with Romeo and Juliet (and at this point, with West Side Story) leaves little room for surprise in the narrative’s untimely end, the tireless beating heart of this production allows us to be every bit as involved as if we were witnessing this love story for the very first time. The passion and commitment of every creative is evident, and it has paid off in spades. 

West Side Story on Sydney Harbour provides an evening of delight in a showcase of Australia’s emerging musical talents, and a celebration of Sydney’s wondrous landscape. It is simply not to be missed. 

Image Supplied


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