West Side Story

WSS America - photo by Jeff BusbyWhen it premiered on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story was heralded as a groundbreaking piece of musical theatre staged by the visionary director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the action is set in the Upper West Side neighbourhood of New York City in the mid 1950s.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the musical explores the rivalry between two teenage street gangs – the Jets and the Sharks – the themes of young love, youth disenfranchisement and new immigrants is as relevant as ever.

Australian audiences have been blessed with two completely different productions playing simultaneously over the past month. Opera Australia’s stunning new production by director Francesca Zambello, set on Sydney Harbour; and Joey McKneely’s 2009 revival, currently playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, which previously played the Regent Theatre in 2010. Both draw on Robbins’ ground-breaking choreography as the keystone of each production.

Since his first encounter with Robbins many decades ago, McKneely has had a long association with the staging of West Side Story across the globe. Having been fortunate to see both productions, McKneely’s latest outing looks a little ragged around the edges.

Noticeable from the outset is how young the cast was. While commendable for casting an ensemble of age appropriate characters of emerging music theatre talent, it also highlights the inexperience and deficiencies in their stage craft skills.

Overall the female principals fare better than their male counterparts. Sophie Salvesani and Chloe Zuel, as Maria and Anita respectively were appealing and full of zest. Zuel’s America and A Boy Like That were highlights.

As Tony, Todd Jacobsson was simply understated – only fleetingly did we see a promising performer in the making – often being out-sung by Salvesani’s powerful soprano voice in their duets. Noah Mullins’ Riff lacked the necessary street smarts, while Lyndon Watts as Bernado was commendable.

Reminiscent of New York City’s laneways, Paul Gallis’ multi-leveled fire escape set looks terrific on the State Theatre stage – especially under Peter Halbsgut’s effective lighting states of primary hues.

More use could have been made of the various levels of the structure, as the resultant staging looked sedentary and one dimensional. The production is at its strongest when the dancers dance, especially in America, though Gee, Officer Krupke provides some much needed comic relief.

Bernstein’s legendary score is one of the masterpieces of musical theatre, featuring such classics, Something’s Coming, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere, here, Musical Supervisor, Donald Chan grabs it fully with gusto, demonstrating the superb musicianship of Orchestra Victoria.

West Side Story
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 9 April 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 28 April 2019
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.westsidestory.com.au for details.

Image: Chloe Zuel as Anita (centre) and ensemble – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Rohan Shearn