West Side Story review (Arts Centre Melbourne)

There are two ways to go with this: bite back a sob of nostalgia for an imagined past where teen hoodlums played hard (Set ‘em up Doc. Cokes all around) and danced hard, where two gangs could be quelled by one policeman; or rejoice in the ecstasy of sight, sound and movement, that is West Side Story.

Out of the gate – that unsettling triad, diabolus in musica; that destabilising, insinuating, finger snapping waiting … the edge of unease, of possibility that pervades, exquisitely articulated in Somethin’s Comin’ – nothing can top the melodic tenderness, the wild, pulsating rhythms of Leonard Bernstein’s orchestral score.

Nothing perhaps, but the ecstatic power of Jerome Robbins’ dance.

The story, a variant on Romeo and Juliet (now Tony and Maria), sticks pretty closely to the structure of Shakespeare’s play. But Arthur Laurents’ book differs from the source material, in ascribing a reason – racial tension among successive waves of immigrants, in this case Puerto Ricans (The Sharks) and Poles (The Jets) – for the violence of the warring factions (families). Shakespeare allowed of no such excuse.

This is the piece where the worlds of classical dance, theatre and music transformed and were transformed by, the Musical. Ironically, it’s a close-to perfect integration.

In this production, I’m struck by the topicality of the material, and of the overt political commentary – some of which feels ageless, some of which seems to have become even more current:

  • The detailed criticism of ‘the system’ in numbers like Officer Krupke, and in some of the rants Bernardo (leader of the Sharks and Maria’s elder brother) indulges in: “Ai! Here comes the whole commercial,” mocks his girlfriend Anita (Chloe Zuel in a phenomenal performance of witty, passionate, unleashed power).
  • The outing of a biased (bigoted) police force (what they lack in numbers, they make up for in implied corruption).
  • The proud affirmation of female strength in Anita which seems to make the horror of the attack on her (in this production very clearly, a Rape) just that much more disturbing.
  • The Jets girl (named ‘Anybody’s’) who wants to be a boy.
  • and the illustration of potential teenage radicalisation unleashed in Maria at the end of the piece – dissipated, true, but visible.

But ’Classic’ musicals, especially successful ones, can feel as though they’re frozen in time: preserved rather than inhabited. Change, adaptation is verboten! and – as a piece like West Side Story ages, given the number of Estates now involved – almost impossible.

And that’s a shame because, even at a distance of over 60 years, West Side Story, a show whose currency was always one of its strengths, really speaks, and could do so more sharply.

Laurents made an attempt to adjust the piece, some years ago, but the focus was on language (with the Puerto Rican dialogue rendered into Spanish by Lin-Manuel Miranda), rather than the kind of adjustments that would see, let’s face it, The Jets as young neo-Nazis tattooed with swastikas.

So there are inherent frustrations:

  • The jargon of the script is dated. Very. Though it’s hard to imagine that a line like: Cut the frabbajabba ever excited much fear.
  • I agree with Sondheim (lyrics) that Cool and Officer Krupke are in the wrong order – they were swapped in the Robert Wise film. And while we’re at it, Interval is way too late coming, deflating the building tension and unbalancing the show.
  • With such a specific timeline (the play takes place over two nights), the blackouts in the lighting plot are disorienting (the one after the Prologue an honourable exception), though Peter Halbsgut’s lighting design is moody-beautiful, but they undermine the more surreal scenes – the Somewhere ballet, for example. And why is Somewhere sung by a voice offstage? It weakens the scene!

Renate Schmitzer’s costumes work pretty well, though Maria (in customary white with red ribbon sash) looks short-waisted and Tony, for some reason, like a chunky Mormon.

The ‘reinforced’ vocals – the polite way of saying “everyone’s mic’d” – may liberate dancers, but amplify vocal flaws, leading, counterintuitively, to a sense of distance from the audience. The Artist at the mercy of the sound mixer in even the most intimate of moments.

As Tony, Todd Jacobsson has a powerful voice, but his singing is ‘pitchy’. Given the mic’ing, he could probably pull back a bit, aiming at intensity rather than volume. Maria (Sophie Salvesani) has a vibrato-operatic voice, but it’s also more tuneful. The score does a lot of work for them – though sometimes Donald Chan (conductor) pushes pace at the expense of diction – but even so, you never really buy that they’re willing to throw-it-all-away in love.

The choric version of Tonight (or ‘Tew-night’, as it now appears, rather unpleasantly, to be pronounced) is a glory!

Robbins’ (AKA Rabinowitz) choreography is brilliantly reproduced by Joey McKneely (also the director, as was Robbins). America in particular, is a knock-out (and let’s give choreographic credit where it’s due to Peter Gennaro). But while the choreography is superbly realised, the purely theatrical scenes are left languishing, and he’s not helped here by Paul Gallis’ Set.

To be clear, the moveable scaffolding fire escapes and balconies are practical and beautiful. Angling the scaffolding to reveal projections of vintage New York (circa 1950) produces a feeling of hidden corners, of the depth-of-field of an old black-and-white movie; pushed out, a fight-or-flight arena for dance – or battle. What’s not offered, no matter how many roll on clothing racks or bed chambers, is intimacy: the lovers seem lost in a warehouse.

I’d thought of West Side Story as a romance, but overwhelmingly, as I watched, I felt that I was witnessing an immigrant story. Which makes sense, given the respective backgrounds of the original creatives.

At the end of Romeo and Juliet, five teenagers are dead and their parents, the adults, are left to grieve. Adults have no place in West Side Story, this is, to use Frank Wedekind’s subtitle for Spring AwakeningA Children’s Tragedy’. The teenagers lift the bodies and carry them from the arena; they don the clothes of mourning and prepare for the new day.

This isn’t a story of renewal, but of the reckoning to come.

West Side Story is on at Arts Centre Melbourne until April 28.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby.

One response to “West Side Story review (Arts Centre Melbourne)

  1. A marvellous review. We saw the show last night,
    Yes,rather dated but great dancing however dialogue was often impossible to understand especially with the pseudo accents
    and singing with the amplification was screechy. The big set seemed to diminish the actors in the love scenes and I felt a real lack of projection of emotion. But can’t criticise the shows energy.

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