WHEN Dramatic Productions’ revival of “West Side Story” takes the stage at Gungahlin College Theatre in early October, it will be up-to-date and authentic, with a focus on Latino actor-singers.
Mind you, there’ll be familiar faces on stage, too, such as Dick Goldberg as Doc, Zach Raffan as Shrank and Colombian artists Yamile and Carlos Tafur, who recently exhibited at Tuggeranong Arts Centre.
There’s no question of its relevance today, producer Richard Block tells me when we gather behind the Hotel Queanbeyan for a photo shoot. The way it deals with racism, immigration and community violence is as hard-hitting now as it was in 1957 when it first hit the stage – that’s why they’re placing it in the here and now.
As well, the “Romeo and Juliet” theme, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, choreography of Jerome Robbins and above all, the fiendishly complex music by Leonard Bernstein still ring true and clear.
Proof of “West Side Story’s” evergreen status can be seen in the 2021 movie by Steven Spielberg and the fact that Opera Australia has just announced it as its choice for the 2024 Handa “Opera on the Harbour” season.
I caught up with musical director Teresa Wojcik to discuss the challenges of coaching musical theatre novices and she points out that there are just 13 songs, but each one is unforgettable.
Born in NZ and trained at the University of Otago, Wojcik spent years in Germany as a singer and composer before moving to Canberra in 2018 to compose music for Charlie Wan’s clown show, “S.A.D: A journey through the seasons of mental health”.
She decided to stay on and now conducts a flourishing career as a voice teacher out of a studio at Canberra Grammar School, also working with groups such as Canberra Dance Theatre, Perform Australia and Dramatic Productions.
She won’t be conducting “West Side Story”, that will fall to the ubiquitous Leonard Weiss, but she’s been busy because of the producing company’s mission to cast Canberra Latino actors as members of the “Sharks” gang and their cohort.
They’ve hit gold with their Puerto Rican characters, Valeria Arciniega as Maria, Eudes Balandrott as Bernardo and Andrea Garcia as Anita, but as well, Wojcik says with pride, they’ve been able to cast every Latino character from the community.
Singing and dancing run deep in most Latin American cultures, she says. That doesn’t necessarily mean they know about musical theatre basics – such as having to turn up to rehearsals three nights a week for three months.
She says there have been “some wonderful surprises”, including a brilliant auditionee who’d only sung in the shower before, but many of them don’t read sheet music, so she’s had to work closely with them on the Bernstein numbers.
“America” may have intricate rhythms, she says, but along with the Mambo and cha-cha in the “Dance at the Gym”, these come naturally to people of Latino background.
Surprisingly, the hardest number of all is the seemingly melodic song “Tonight”, first performed by Tony and Maria but then, just before the gangland “Rumble”, reprised in five parts, where, for instance, Jets leader Riff sings: “The Jets are gonna have their day tonight” and Anita sings: “Anita’s gonna get her kicks tonight.”
Fortunately, Wojcik has plenty of tricks up her sleeve and tells me: “I work on the different harmonies in their parts, then get them to record their line so they can practice and get really familiar with it, then play a record that’s got everyone in it and see if they can hear their part.”
But for Arciniega, the bachelor of nursing student who is playing Maria, the toughest number is “A Boy Like That”, sung immediately after Tony has killed Shark’s leader Bernardo.
Luckily, she has had musical training, although she heard about the audition from a friend at dance class.
Her romantic counterpart, Tony, is played by William “Wally” Allington (obviously not Latino), who is also a trained vocalist and the son of a well-known Sydney music teacher.
After completing a PhD thesis, Allington is now free to devote more time to his love of singing. He performed in the CSO’s “Messiah” last year and aspires to sing both bass and counter-tenor.
So, after the drama of the story does it all end on a smashing big number?
Not a bit of it, Wojcik says.
“It ends quietly, with a bit of ‘Somewhere’, and then, nothing.”
“West Side Story,” Gungahlin College Theatre, October 6 to 21.
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