By Hamish Stening
Opening night of West Side Story was unfortunately very wet, and while I’m sure that many of those that had dressed up for the red carpet were unhappy to have to cover up with ponchos, nobody could honestly say that they didn’t have a good time. Like they have previously for operas but never before for a musical, Opera Australia have built a stage on the water at Sydney’s iconic Farm Cove. This means that the stage has the most beautiful of backdrops: the Bridge and the Opera House to the right; the lit cityscape to the left. The stage is very large but Brian Thomson’s set is efficient, aesthetic and very functional, and at no point did the stage feel sparse.
Every night there are fireworks. I won’t spoil when they are launched but I will tell you that it is actually a clever addition to the show. It is not just a gimmick. The number of moving parts in the set and staging is similarly impressive, and the lighting design is powerful and completely unexpected given that this “theatre” is outside and temporary.
What is most crucial to the production, however, is its charm. Julie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis’ Maria and Tony have brilliant chemistry and are very affable – something crucial for rebellious characters. Their romance, while on paper is very sudden and unbelievable, is onstage genuine, affecting and support-worthy.
Mark Hill plays Riff with vigour and heart, and as always his voice is divine. Waldemar Quiñones-Villanueva is a smart choice as Bernando and delivers all of the quality you would hope for from a Broadway star.
Karli Dinardo’s Anita is sheer perfection. It is a shame that ‘A Boy Like That’ is such a short song because I have never heard a rendition as good as hers before. The crispness of her dancing is similarly astonishing but her character and energy is so strong that her sublime technical work will not get the recognition it deserves. She is a gem of the stage and it is fabulous to see her returning to the Australian stage.
Too often the songs from West Side Story are sung blandly and with no consideration of lyric or context, but in this production every line was delivered with thoughtfulness and intelligence. For the first time in dozens of productions of West Side I have seen, the characters’ lyrics made sense and were an important component of song.
The ensemble are unfortunately a little sloppy in dance (although that may well have been due to the torrential rain the performers battled through without any complaint or compromise), but the choreography in this production is beautiful. It pays fan services with several yet appropriate references Jerome Robbins’s original Broadway choreography, but also makes use of the large stage. Actors are able to spread out and even literally run 40 meters on stage, and scenes involving the full cast are dynamic and fantastically entertaining.
Now there is no getting past the fact that tickets for this show are costly, but this production is definitely worth the price. Even ignoring the majesty of the harbour in the background and the quality of the performance on stage, Opera Australia have curated a brilliant night out. The walkway from Mrs Macquaries Road has been built up and decorated, and just past Victoria Lodge Opera Australia have built the most gorgeous outdoor lounge in which you can sit down and enjoy your pre-show drinks. It is beautifully lit and a wonderful space to be in. West Side Story is so much more than just a show. It is an experience; an phenomenal night of guaranteed enjoyment.
If you can spare the money, experience West Side on the Harbour! This is a tremendous achievement, something Sydney can be truly proud of. You cannot experience anything like this anywhere else in the world. Take a date, take your mother, take your best friend. The show is of the highest quality and a beautiful recreation of one of the greatest musicals of all time. All of the great songs you recognise but secretly hate are given context and performed as they were meant to, and you cannot help but have a good time.
This is a theatrical event of the highest calibre and definitely one to make sacrifices to see.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.