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