Though it might have been a controversial choice to stage West Side Story as the first musical in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, this brilliant production, under the inspired direction of International opera director, Francesca Zambello, reveals why this show is being embraced by opera companies around the world, and offers such a thrilling theatrical experience that it will become a yardstick for judging future HOSH productions.
The brainchild of choreographer, Jerome Robbins who harnessed the formidable talents of Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) to create a Romeo and Juliet musical, West Side Story broke away from the conventions of the time, tackling New York’s contemporary immigration issues by focusing on warring street gangs.
The show was recognised as a masterpiece from the beginning and over the years has lost none of its power. Its characters and situations remain as vivid as ever, and this relatively straight- forward production, devised by Francesca Zambello and her creatives, is a persuasive demonstration of why.
By avoiding the temptation to embellish the actual work, but embracing the opportunities offered by the unique outdoor Sydney Harbour location, every element serves the original concept.
Brian Thomson has devised a striking, atmospheric setting which includes rail carriages covered in graffiti, New York fire-escapes and part of a huge overpass through which glimpses of the Sydney skyline, Harbour Bridge and Opera House form part of the vista. Most of the action takes place on a huge raked stage painted to resemble a basketball court. Large scenic elements move seamlessly into place as required.
The ensemble of talented triple-threat performers ignored the daunting rake of the stage, as well as the driving rain which persisted during the first hour of the performance on opening night, attacking Robbins’ still remarkable choreography with thrilling energy and attention to detail.
Indeed, it was a huge pleasure to see this choreography, an essential part of the production, reproduced with such authenticity by choreographer, Julio Monge, who had previously worked with Jerome Robbins and is now entrusted with recreating his West Side Story choreography in opera houses around the world.
Utilising the same number of dancers as in the original 1957 production, Monge has taken advantage of the huge stage area to add speed and spectacle, without sacrificing any of the meticulous attention to line and phrasing which characterises the Robbins style.
Jennifer Irwin’s stylish costumes, vibrant red and yellows for the Puerto Rican Sharks, cool blues and greens for the West Side Jets, also complimented the choreography while differentiating the dueling factions.
Julie Lea Goodwin played Maria in a 2010 production of West Side Story, and in the intervening years has established herself in opera. Her Maria in this production has grown in stature and confidence and is now totally captivating. Her radiant voice soars in Tonight; she’s frivolous and silly in I feel Pretty, and deeply moving in Somewhere.
Matching her performance, Alexander Lewis as Tony is intense and passionate. In great voice he brings operatic heft to his ecstatic, swooning renditions of Tonight and Maria. His scenes with Goodwin have real chemistry and their duets together are sheer joy.
Returning from New York, Melbourne-born Karli Dinardo is making her Australian debut as the feisty, Anita. Dinardo is a firecracker performer who dances up a storm in the Gym scene, blazes through A Boy like That, while managing to imbue her relationship with Maria with an unexpected softness and depth that is very appealing.
Handsome and virile, Puerto Rican ballet dancer, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva scores as Anita’s fiery boyfriend, Bernardo, and Mark Hill makes a strong impression as the unfortunate Riff. Among other fine performances, David Whitney brings depth to his role as Doc, and an almost unrecognizable Scott Irwin raises hackles as the bullying Lt. Shrank.
Excellent sound design which ensured that the lyrics and dialogue were crystal clear, and that the nuances of orchestration in Bernstein’s stunning score, given an exciting performance by the large orchestra conducted by Guy Simpson, added icing to the cake.
Don’t be deterred by the possibility of rain. Plastic ponchos can be purchased at the venue, and curiously, a shower of rain seems to add to the uniqueness of the outdoor experience. But whatever you do, don’t miss this production of West Side Story – you’re unlikely to see a better one!
West Side Story
Fleet Steps – Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney Harbour
Performance: Friday 22 March 2019 – 7.30pm (Opening Night)
Season continues to 21 April 2019
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Julie Lea Goodwin as Maria and Alexander Lewis as Tony in Opera Australia’s 2019 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, West Side Story – photo by Keith Saunders
Review: Bill Stephens OAM