Review: West Side Story (Opera Australia)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Aug 16 – Oct 6, 2019
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Jerome Robbins
Cast: Christian Ambesi, Matthew Antonucci, Daniel Assetta, Molly Bugeja, Olivia Carniato, Nicholas Collins, Nikki Croker, Paul Dawber, Angelica Di Clemente, Sarah Dimas, Amba Fewster, Anthony Garcia, Sebastien Golenko, Keanu Gonzalez, Paul Hanlon, Zoe Ioannou, Brady Kitchingham, Ariana Mazzeo, Noah Mullins, Natasha O’Hehir, Nathan Pavey, Sophie Salvesani, Berynn Schwerdt, Ritchie Singer, Taylah Small, Joshua Taylor, Blake Tuke, Dean Vince, Lyndon Watts, Daniel Wijngaarden, Jason Yang-Westland, Chloé Zuel
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
It is now 62 years, since the world was first introduced to the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs from West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim’s landmark musical. Its relevance today is startling, as we find the United States in the throes of shocking immigration policies, determined to demonise those hailing from Latin America. The authentic darkness of the piece prevents it from dating, from its experimental musical styles to its thematic explorations into racial vilification, its resonances are timeless, even if the narrative seems to relate specifically to a distant time and space.

The production is highly polished, with director and choreographer Jerome Robbins’ original vision faithfully presented. Design elements no longer feel inventive by today’s standards, but the air of sophistication being conjured is unequivocal.

A tale about white supremacy, West Side Story features a group of white boys called the Jets, who spend their days taunting the Puerto Rican Sharks. Lyndon Watts is an imposing Bernardo, powerful and precise as leader of the Sharks. His nemesis Riff is played by Noah Mullins, a very peculiar casting choice given the performer’s glaringly bookish quality. Leading lady Sophie Salvesani is a suitably wholesome Maria, although rarely inspiring with her renditions of some extremely well-known songs. Daniel Assetta may not deliver a flawless Tony, but we are kept engaged by his likeable presence and surprisingly dulcet tones. The one real star on this stage is Chloé Zuel, whose Anita takes us through every gamut of emotion, impressive from beginning to end, as the proverbial triple threat.

Policing authorities in West Side Story fail to recognise the inherent power imbalance at play, as they attempt to handle the situation as though the feuding parties are equal in strength, unable to identify the victims they should protect. Minorities are routinely subjugated, when a level playing field exists only in our imagination. It is easy to place blame on the juvenile delinquents, who act out these objectionable impulses, but the problems are systemic, deeply entrenched in how we think and how we do things. The cure needs to target the root of the problem, and that will never be less than radical.

www.westsidestory.com.au