Musical / “West Side Story”, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, until April 21. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.
FROM its earliest appearances in 1957 the musical “West Side Story” was a revolutionary collaboration between choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and librettist Stephen Sondheim.
Francesca Zambello’s new production for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour confirms that it still holds sway as a dance musical.
That impression was enhanced by the fact that rain bucketed down for a good hour or so on opening night, leaving the singers sodden, costume designer Jennifer Irwin’s bridal gowns for “I Feel Pretty” drenched, but the dancing still intact.
Under the expert guidance of choreographer Julio Monge, using Robbins’ choreography as the starting point, the dancers came up trumps with “wet weather choreography”, wearing sensible lace up shoes planted perfectly on the raked stage and giving breathtaking performances throughout. Pleasing to note, Canberra dance identity Jamie Winbank was among them, playing a member of the Sharks gang, Diabolo.
Also seizing the limelight was Brian Thompson’s extraordinary set in which the west side of New York City was recreated as a series of installations underneath an enormous overpass, lit effectively by John Rayment to show the different locations of the action.
This required segments of the set to be wheeled downstage to give focus to Maria’s bedroom and the bridal shop, for instance, then to be removed again in time for the large expanses needed for the dance at the gym, the rumble and painful final act of this modernised “Romeo and Juliet”, rendered all the more poignant by recent events in Christchurch.
With a production so heavily amplified, it is not easy to say much about the music conducted by Guy Simpson, except that the exciting syncopation and the opportunities for beautiful vocal duets and trios still hit hard.
Director Zambello adopted a full-blast approach to the familiar story. Gone was any suggestion of subtlety or nuance in the relationship between Maria and Tony – it was rather “wham-bam”, as Alexander Lewis as Tony and Julia Lea Goodwin as Maria belted out their love-songs, full-bodied, with their acting indicating little youthful innocence.
In keeping with the drive and vitality of the production, it was often Karli Dinardo as Anita who stole the show, especially in “A Boy like That”, following the death of Bernardo.
Lusty singing characterised the show’s big numbers, with the fireworks which always accompany Opera on the Harbour sensibly staged earlier in the evening, to allow the sombre ending to have its fullest effect.
The jury is still out on the question of whether opera, with its moments of grandeur and depth of feeling, is more suited to the harbourside than a Broadway musical, even one as good as this, but whatever the verdict, this “West Side Story” will undoubtedly prove a crowd-pleaser.