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Review: West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House

By Hamish Stening

West Side Story is arguably the greatest musical of all time and for good reason. At the time it was revolutionary both in themes and structure yet remarkably the tragedy remains relevant today. For those who do not know the show, it is an adaption of Romeo and Juliet. Set in 1950s New York, it centres around the conflict between two gangs: the Puerto Rican American Sharks and the white American Jets. Maria, sister of Sharks leader Bernado and engaged by arrangement to another Shark Chino, meets Jets golden boy Tony at a dance and they instantly fall in love. The star-crossed lovers are doomed from the off, tragic victims of racism and hypermasculinity.

This latest production of the show is directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, the man who has been recreating Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro’s original choreography all over the world since 2000 (including the 2009 Broadway revival and the 2005-2010 world tour). His Sydney version of the show has new staging but also still has that classic, indisputably perfect original choreography.

McKneely, who learnt directly from Robbins, is a perfectionist and has a tremendous eye for detail. All movement on stage is stylised and has great energy. Actors move very unsubtly and deliberately into their (strangely unnerving but wonderfully aesthetic) formations on stage, but this gives the show real charm, character, and beauty. It’s a choice that will divide audiences but I for one really enjoyed it.

The dancing, on the other hand, is undeniably brilliant. The original choreography is as iconic as it is mesmerising and this cast execute it very well. They are perfectly in time, match heights and intensity, and make every pose pop. The high expectations McKneely sets for his cast really pays off. I’m not that you will ever see tighter or more enjoyable dancing on an Australian stage.

It is then a shame that the show’s sound doesn’t quite match the quality of the visuals. The score is iconic – Leonard Bernstein at his very best – and many will have heard it played with a full symphonic orchestra. Having one player per part is, admittedly only after that treat, a little disappointing, and all but the brass sound distractingly over-amplified when boosted enough to fill the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

The singing is beautiful in tone at times but not consistently. Leads struggled at the extremes of their ranges and much of the show is shouted not sung.

Tony for the night Daniel Assetta (regular Todd Jacobsson was ill) and Sophie Salvesani as Maria have authentic chemistry from the first time they meet on stage right up until (SPOILERS) Tony’s death. Their youth plays as innocence and contrasts well with the learned aggression and enmity of both the Jets and the Sharks. This production is as relevant as the Broadway original but for slightly different reasons. Whereas the original specifically critiqued gang violence, the harmful us-vs-them divisions and societally encouraged hypermasculinity causing that violence is just as worthy of critique today.

Chloé Zuel as Anita is powerful and deeply emotive but often slipped into a pop theatre belt that was too modern for the feel of the show. Her acting (SPOILERS) both during and after her sexual assault is powerful without ever being distasteful or over-done. Lyndon Watts as Bernardo brings all of the flair, charisma, and machismo required for to nail the role while Ritchie Singer, whose role may be minor compared to the other actors mentioned, is real standout as Doc. He contrasts the other men in the show well (although I would have liked Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke to be more desperately aggressive than bumbling idiot-like) and is crucial for both the tragedy and messages of the piece.

Another highlight of this production is how well certain (usually poorly executed) songs land. Many people detest “I Feel Pretty”, “Cool”, and “Gee, Officer Krupke” because they have seen awful renditions. ‘Why are they in the show?’, those people ask. Well, when the songs are performed as they were meant to – as they are in this production – the answer to that question becomes abundantly clear.

This is a very good production of West Side Story. The acting, singing, and production elements are all generally good but the real reason to see this production is the dancing. If you have never seen the show and want to see what all the fuss is about, or if you love the show and just want to see another production that broadly does it justice, see this West Side. It captures the original intention of the show and the beautiful execution of the original choreography is truly a delight. Sydney has waited a long time for a Joey McKneely West Side but it has certainly been worth the wait.

Photo Credit: Jeff Busby

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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