West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until October 6
Photos by Jeff Busby
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
Do the choreography, the songs and the storyline hold up 62 years after the first Broadway production of West Side Story? That was the question on opening night at the Sydney Opera House. This latest incarnation is faithful to the original production and there were high expectations.
West Side Story re-tells the tale of Romeo and Juliet, and instead of the Montagues and Capulets, the Puerto Rican Sharks gang and the white American Jets gang duke it out on the streets of the Upper West Side of New York City in the mid 1950s. Star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria are in the middle of the racially-based feud.
All of your favourite songs are there. “Maria”, “Tonight”, “Somewhere”, “America”, “Something’s Coming”, “Cool”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “Gee, Officer Krupke”, “A Boy Like That” and “I Feel Pretty” provide a musical trip down memory lane.
On opening night the leading man was ill and Tony was played by understudy Daniel Assetta who did well. While his singing voice was fine for the role, I was hoping for more strength behind it in the style of P.J. Proby who recorded “Maria” and “Somewhere”, and whose powerful voice could almost blow your hair back.
As Maria, leading lady Sophie Salvesani has a sweet soprano voice that provided a nice contrast with the other singers who are more “pop” than classical.
Chloé Zuel as Anita is an excellent foil for her friend Maria, and was gut-wrenchingly dramatic in the final scenes, which are the highlight of this production.
Most of the performers in this cast are very young and have limited experience, so it was pleasing to see actors such as Ritchie Singer as Doc and Paul Dawber as Lt. Schrank contributing some balance.
After a lightweight opening gang fight scene that looked more like a dance competition in a venue on Oxford Street, the intensity gradually improved, especially late in the second act. The members of the Jets gang didn’t at all seem like hardened New York City street thugs. In fact, they made Grant Denyer look tough. Also, their accents wandered. If it wasn’t for Singer, Dawber and Dean Vince as Officer Krupke, there would be no awareness of the period.
When the full company performed a rousing rendition of “Tonight”, I was expecting the curtain to come down on an energetic high, but as with other productions, including the film, the first act concluded with the necessary energetic opposite.
The external fire escape set and cyclorama projections helped to create senses of expansiveness and closeness at different times.
Conductor Donald Chan had a full orchestra pit but sounded like there were fewer musicians than there were.
This latest production of West Side Story will appeal to those of you who hold fond memories of the film and stage versions that you have seen, and to those who want to know what American musical theatre might have been like in the 1950s.
You won’t leave the theatre with the same feelings that you had immediately after you saw the recent productions of “Kinky Boots”, “The Book of Mormon”, “Beautiful”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Saturday Night Fever” or “Jersey Boys”, but West Side Story is still worth catching, as long as you’re prepared to make some allowances.