Fans of celebrated director and choreographer Jerome Robbins are in for a treat, with a considered recreation of his work now on show at the State Theatre, Melbourne.
West Side Story transfers Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York, where rival street gangs The Jets (American born with Polish roots) and The Sharks (Puerto Ricans who have immigrated to the US) fight for their turf. Like Shakespeare’s Montague and Capulet families, these reckless teens lose control and don’t fully comprehend the severity of their actions until it results in the death of their friends. With a focus on ethnic differences, the plight of Romeo and Juliet’s whirlwind romance seems even more ill-fated when represented by the determined Tony and the naïve Maria, who has only just arrived from Puerto Rico.
An illustrious original creative team: Arthur Laurent’s exceptional book, Leonard Bernstein’s sumptuous score combined with Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful lyrics (his Broadway debut!) ensured a valid and enduring adaptation. Robbins’ overall concept and his iconic choreography solidified West Side Story as one of the 20th century’s greatest musicals.
Joel McKneeley directs Opera Australia’s current production (along with many International productions of the work). His expert knowledge of the piece is realised through proficient handling of the show’s darker themes, with Anita’s assault and the gripping final scene masterclasses in tension and timing. McKneeley’s greatest success, however, is his expert recreation of Robbins’ choreography, which is flawlessly executed by an exceptional dance ensemble.
Sophie Salvesani makes a triumphant debut as Maria. Petite and earnest, Salvesani beautifully captures Maria’s naïve and trusting personality. Her expert portrayal of Maria in the first act allows for a wonderful contrast when she is faced with grief and derision. Salvesani is a stunning soprano with an effortless and endearing quality, making her one to watch!
Todd Jacobsson is less successful as Tony, but enjoys a good rapport with Riff (Noah Mullins) and a convincing lack of judgement in the rumble. Although there are clearly no winners in this story, casting wise it’s the Sharks, thanks to Lyndon Watts’ excellent portrayal of Bernardo. Watts’ Bernardo is a perfect combination of charm and leadership. Chloe Zuel is well suited as the feisty Anita, leading the fun ‘America’ as well as she delivers the powerful ‘A Boy Like That’.
Set Designer, Paul Gallis, provides versatile fire escape structures which swiftly (although not always quietly) move to depict multiple settings. This simple structure is mostly effective, particularly thanks to Peter Halbsgut’s lighting, but more detail for Doc’s interior setting wouldn’t go astray. Upstage projection is also used successfully, but at times the upstage area sits bare and unused.
Renate Schmitzer’s Costume Design is innovative, outlining the differences between the Jets and the Sharks whilst maintaining historical accuracy. The dream sequence is particularly successful, with white recreations of some of these outfits.
Audiences are in for a delight with a 31 piece – yes, you read that correctly – orchestra. Under the capable leadership of Music Supervisor/Conductor Donald Chan, Orchestra Victoria (visible thanks the open pit) provide sumptuous accompaniment to some wonderful voices.
The classic Broadway musical, West Side Story, plays the State Theatre Melbourne until 28 April 2019, before embarking on a national tour.
Photos: Jeff Busby
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