Puerto Rican ladies in 'West Side Story'. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

West Side Story. Opera Australia (another review)

12 October 2019 (matinee preview), Canberra Theatre

Opera Australia’s production of the Broadway musical West Side Story was reviewed on this website by Jennifer Shennan—see this link—when it opened in Wellington ahead of its Australian performances. But of course I could not miss the show, especially when it has such a strong emotional appeal for me. When West Side Story opened in Sydney way back in the 1960s, one of the members of the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) was an African American named Ronne Arnold. Ronne taught classes in jazz at the dance school I attended and he ended up making his home in Australia and also making a major contribution to our dance culture. Although another visiting American modern dancer said to me around the same time ‘You’re very classical, darling’, I loved Ronne’s non-classical classes and continued to do them as often as I could. So West Side Story will always have a special place in my heart.

Looking at it onstage half a century (!!) later what is instantly striking is that it just doesn’t seem dated, although some may consider parts of the song Gee, Officer Krupe, which features towards the end of the show, not terribly ‘politically correct’ in 2019. But that aside, part of its attraction perhaps is that ethnic differences, which are represented by the two rival gangs—the Sharks and the Jets—and the social issues such differences so often raise, are still all around us. But there is so much else that marks West Side Story as one of the truly amazing collaborations in performing arts’ history. The book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the choreography by Jerome Robbins meld so beautifully with each other and give the whole a truly impressive coherence.

Robbins’ choreography is spectacular in its ability to tell us what is happening. Dance may be a wordless art but with Robbins so often no words are needed. Even the gestures he adds when the performers are singing rather than dancing give us clues to the unfolding of the story.

The standout artist in the cast I saw was undoubtedly Chloé Zuel as Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo leader of the Sharks. She was feisty and flamboyant and she used every moment to project that image of her character. Her dancing was exciting to watch and oh how she used that costume to add drama to every movement! She was nothing short of brilliant. But while Zuel stood out, every cast member gave his or her all. Group numbers were thrilling; individuals shone. Just look at the featured image, for example, to see how individualistic the Shark girls were.

The only somewhat jarring aspect for me was that some of the duets between the heroine Maria (Sophie Salvesani) and the hero Tony (Nigel Huckle) seemed, in the manner of their presentation, rather too operatic. I realise that the production is by Opera Australia but to me West Side Story is a dance musical. The staging that surrounded the duets (strong spotlighting with associated dimming of the background, and removal of all other characters) meant that the overall nature of the work was lost. Of course the duets were beautifully sung, and it may be somewhat of a niggle on my part, but I wanted the idea of a dance musical not to be lost.

While on on the subject of niggles, I was sorry that the complex set of balconies and fire escapes looked so overwhelming on the Canberra Theatre stage (when will the national capital get a new theatre complex?). But despite any niggles, I could see this show over and over. It was wonderful to have it back on stage in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2019

Featured image: Shark girls in West Side Story. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

Puerto Rican ladies in 'West Side Story'. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

West Side Story. Opera Australia

7 June 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

                                          The same only different.

c. 1590—Shakespeare sets Romeo & Juliet in c.1390 Verona (and the town is happy to remember that still). Poetry tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Montague and Capulet, loyalties demanded, much street fighting, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Sword fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

1957—Jerome Robbins, director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein, composer, Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, book, set West Side Story in upper west Manhattan (though the area has since been somewhat gentrified). Dance tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Jets and Sharks, loyalties demanded, much street dancing, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Fist and knife fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

2019—Australian production opens in Wellington. Seasoned musical director/conductor, Donald Chan, holds brilliantly taut reins on a spirited performance from  the Australian cast and local Orchestra Wellington musicians.

Complex stage sets of towering buildings and balconies are moved seamlessly throughout the performance, so there is a further team out the back performing a dance we don’t see.

There is little spoken dialogue in the show but in a short sequence, two junior members of the Jets confess their fear of the imminent arrival of cops to investigate murder. The pathos struck in their brief confession of individual human emotion makes striking contrast with the kind of confident bravura so readily summoned for group display in the gangs’ dances and songs throughout the show. Of those the romping standouts are I like to be in America and Gee, Officer Krupke. 

The ballet sequence near the end, to Somewhere (perhaps too well-lit for the dream scenario it implies?) sits in marked contrast to the rest of the dancing, and we only hear but do not see the vocalist for that number.  (I would have welcomed the singer to stand in a royal corner box and thus to seem to sing on the audience’s behalf).

West Side Story rocketed to fame on Broadway as a big, big musical, and was soon  translated to a movie that became known worldwide. (Do you know anyone who didn’t see it?) Steven Spielberg is preparing a new movie version, this one to be set in Harlem, so that’s moving to 131st Street, filming to start about now.

Rita Moreno, unforgettable as Anita, the leading lady of the Sharks, won an Oscar for her performance in the original movie. She will play in the Spielberg film, a re-worked version of the character Doc, the shop-owner where Tony (aka Romeo) works.

In the cast we saw here, Doc, the only voice of reason, though no-one would listen until too late, was impeccably played by Ritchie Singer. In the sizzling role of Anita, Chloe Zuel was the knockout member of a large cast where everyone acquitted themselves with verve and commitment. Not a beat was missed throughout. Donald Chan saw to that.

(Makes you want to watch the movie again. Maybe after that I’ll listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet score?)

New Zealand apparently holds the dubious title of the per capita world record for the number of gangs and patched members. Territories are guarded, loyalties demanded, external authority rejected. From the occasional reports of events and encounters between them, one might imagine they also know personal storylines not too removed from the above. How we are is who we are.

West Side Story comes from classic stock. Dance followers may be interested, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hitherto renowned for avant garde dance theatre, is also at work on a Broadway revival of West Side Story with entirely new choreography, production date 2020. Clearly it’s a work for our time, and for many times. 

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby