Opera, Reviews, Stage

West Side Story review (Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney)

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Like the No. 1 subway through the Upper West Side, a thin line bisects this alfresco West Side Story on Sydney Harbour.

The difference between a great night out and a miserable one? Just add water, as us fancy-frocked freeloaders found on opening night when the heavens opened just as the orchestra struck up the overture, miserably soaking under $5 plastic ponchos for the entire first act.

The difference between a high-kickin’ musical about the deadly violence of difference – in this week, of all weeks – being a charming, even germane anachronism or a frivolous, even distasteful entertainment? Very thin indeed.

And the difference between a show that celebrates minorities while discriminating against them in the casting room? Barely there at all.

Put all that aside, and this West Side Story is a solid success. In fact, in many important ways it might be the most successful spectacle floated by Opera Australia yet.

The company has put together a stellar creative team and their experience shows. Director Francesca Zambello has learned the lessons of previous harbourside shows – including her La traviata in the inaugural year – to create a production that plays big and small.

Legendary designer Brian Thomson has crafted a set instantly evocative and cleverly effective. Subway cars lie wrecked on a basketball court under a graffitied high line, transforming into drug store hangouts and gang war barricades. And that famous balcony – transported, of course, from Shakespeare’s Verona to 1950s Manhattan – elegantly skips down the stage and pirouettes to reveal the cramped living quarters of New York’s underclass inside.

Did I mention this thing is a masterpiece? Does that even need reinforcement?

Almost everything hits its mark in this production, not least of course that iconic Jerome Robbins choreography, which remains completely thrilling in the big group numbers. It lacked a little finesse, perhaps, but given the slippery conditions it’s amazing everyone stayed on their feet. I would love to see a new dance treatment for this show, six decades on now since Robbins first conceived his unmistakable moves for Broadway, but you can’t blame the estate for being protective of every step of its masterpiece.

Did I mention this thing is a masterpiece? Does that even need reinforcement? Opera purists may baulk at the choice of material, but Leonard Bernstein stands alongside former harbour headliners Verdi, Puccini and Bizet as towering composers of 19th and 20th century theatre. All those enduring melodies, an ardent score that swells in all the right places, performed with precision by the under-stage orchestra (Guy Simpson conducts) and amplified out into the soggy bleachers with a great deal of care.

Stephen Sondheim, speaking of towering theatre artists, wrote lyrics for Bernstein before going on to compose masterpieces of his own. But he might not have written a smarter, funnier set of rhymes than those in WSS’s America. Arthur Laurents’ book is as tight as a Latin drum, unflinching, by 1950s standards, in its treatment of racial prejudice.

It’s the casting that spoils this show, with the choice of star-crossed lovers unforgivable in very different ways.

When Maria screams at these warring boys – Sharks and Jets, American and Puerto Rican, white and not – that they killed not with guns but with hate, the message seems far too simple and far too relevant. It has aged terribly, West Side Story, with its jazz hands and love-at-first-sight saga, and at the same time aged not one little bit.

It’s the casting that spoils this show, with the choice of star-crossed lovers unforgivable in very different ways.

Hearing a lyric soprano the calibre of Julie Lea Goodwin sing the role of Maria, with all the colours of the rainbow, is a thrill. She’s completely comfortable in the role. But she’s not Puerto Rican. Or Hispanic of any hue. Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia’s artistic director, says that shouldn’t matter. I respectfully disagree. And the dismissiveness is alarming. It can’t go unmentioned, as unfair as that might be to the terrific artist in the role. Opera Australia brought that on her. And, given the pool of Australian talent at its disposal, it has no excuse. Enough said.

Alexander Lewis is much less assured vocally as Tony, straining at key moments. And his puppy dog presence is the wrong fit for the role. What does Maria see in this guileless simpleton? All Lewis’ choices seem wrong, draining any passion from the stage. With some direction he may find more of the character later in the run.

The rest of the casting is solid. Mark Hill has the misplaced menace necessary as Riff. Puerto Rico-born, New York-based Waldemar Quiñones-Villanueva has all the moves as Bernardo (and company dance captain). And Karli Dinardo, an Australian also in New York, returns home to steal her scenes as Anita, just as Chita Rivera (the Broadway original) and Rita Moreno (the 1961 film) did all those years ago.

The rain can’t wash away everything that is joyous about this work and, indeed, this buoyant production. But how wonderfully heart-swelling it might have been with a pair of lovers we could really believe in.

West Side Story plays on Sydney Harbour until April 21

Photo by Prudence Upton

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