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