Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A West Side Story of passion, intensity and understanding...and gobsmacking dance at Arts Centre Melbourne

Opening on Tuesday night at Melbourne’s State Theatre as part of an international tour - back with a fresh cast after its premiere Australian season in 2010 - the gang tensions, the animosities and the doomed romance that reside in West Side Story exploded with passion, intensity and understanding. But Holy Mary Mother of God, the dancing was a gobsmacking, extraordinary triumph. What also showed was that musical theatre in this country has a healthy, vibrant batch of performers who’ll be thrilling and entertaining into a far distant future in top quality form.

Todd Jacobsson as Tony and Ensemble, West Side Story 
In a production restaged by Jerome Robbins prodigy Joey McKneely, as director and choreographer, the results fabulously showcased Robbins’ original concept for a contemporary musical inspired by an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and of its highly collaborative team of Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book). It’s a lavish-looking affair, backed by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment, of the BB Group production that opened at London’s Sadlers Wells.

Dark themes of racial hatred, fear of the ‘other’ and violent response dominate in a perfectly seamed drama in which a radiant romance between boy and girl from opposing gangs plants seeds of hope which later vanish in its community of entrenched directionless youth. It sounds familiar. The 1950s New York ethnic working class neighbourhood of rival gangs where Robbins based his story might have disappeared with urban renewal but the blood racial hatred and discrimination spills hasn’t and shamefully stains communities everywhere. On top of this, the soaring dance and melodies of West Side Story act much like a plea for fairness and sensibility without sugaring issues that can’t be solved easily. It makes a powerful statement.

The first words spoken, “Brown boy!”, immediately establish the mood. From there, every kick, punch and kapow, the pirouettes, leaps and grace of Joey McKneely’s choreography, what one could compare in expression to what emotional depths are achieved in opera, are attuned to Bernstein’s evocative, synergetic music. Orchestra Victoria, in strong force with more than 30 of its musicians in the pit, sounded plush with musical director Donald Chan securely in charge.

The Jets, West Side Story, Arts Centre Melbourne
Stage area is appropriately prioritised for large ensemble dance sequences. If not for the big black and white photographic backgrounds, set designer Paul Gallis’ framework of balconies and stairs that flank either side - and come together as they do for a marvellous scene as Tony sings up to Maria above - doesn’t always convince. Under some of Peter Halbsgut’s cocktail of lighting, it looked more Bangkok bamboo than New York steel. And Renate Schmitzer’s costumes often appear to be too squeaky clean with the Puerto Ricans immigrants weighed down by stereotypical falsity. The upside is that in the melee, the Jets and the Sharks are always distinguishable.

The muscularity, precision and dance formations are the compelling driver of the drama that often jolts with shock and occasionally invites the comic in this rarer musical with a tragic ending. Anita’s rape by the Jets is genuinely confronting and blatantly criminal in its aggressive dance, the fight scenes are heart-stopping and Tony’s death is a sudden blow no matter if you see it coming. In contrast, the tune and sparkling dance of Anita and the Puerto Rican chickadees in “America” and the Jet boys’ mockery of Officer Krupke and the police in “Gee, Officer Krupke” make their point as they elevate the spirit. Kudos to each and everyone for the massive, energetic and flawless workout given and teamwork displayed.

As Tony and Maria, Todd Jacobsson and Sophie Salvesani created an affecting pair as love’s uncontrollable bliss presents dreams of the future. In charming velvety flexible voice, Jacobsson fired up the optimism with sincerity in his opening song, “Something’s Coming”. While a shimmering veil of orchestral sound carried Jacobsson’s warm lyrical tones and choirboy beauty of “Maria”, the voice was unsettled in duet with Salvesani’s luminous, confident and blooming richness in “Tonight”. Later in the bridal shop, as the two dance their imaginary wedding in “One Hand, One Heart”, the chemistry and voices blended and shone at their most effective but Salvesani always presented as the more secure of the two.

Sophie Salvesani as Maria and Todd Jacobsson as Tony
Chloe Zuel was a standout as the vivacious and lush voiced Anita, As the Sharks’ kingpin, Lyndon Watts superbly wore the cool suavity and menacing moves of Bernardo and if Noah Mullins could’ve packed a punch earlier in voice and brawn as rival gang leader, as he grew to be by Act 1’s violent finale, a more convincing Riff would’ve shown.

Smaller youth roles were amply filled with cranked up talent - a special mention going to Molly Bugeja for her seemingly always everywhere persevering tomboyish Anybodys. The adults - Richie Singer’s well-meaning Doc, Dean Vince’s unscrupulous Officer Krupke, Paul Dawber’s assertive Lieutenant Schrank and Paul Hanlon’s limp-wristed Glad Hand - are depicted helplessly behind ‘barriers’ both have erected. “You make the world lousy!”, says Doc, to which the reply comes, “That’s how we found it.” Just as Maria and Anita sing “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong,” so too, the nature of relationships cannot be weighed easily. The disturbing outcome and truth that West Side Story presents is that this is a never-ending story.

West Side Story 
Opera Australia
Arts Centre Melbourne

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

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