BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY at Adelaide Festival Theatre

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BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY at Adelaide Festival TheatreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 29th November 2019.

With music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is one of the greatest musical theatre classics. It opened in 1957 and the film was released in 1961. Set in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1950s, it is, of course, an updating of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with the two feuding families in 16th Century Verona becoming gangs of youths, one made up of first generation Americans, whose parents were immigrants from Europe, calling themselves the Jets, and the other consisting of Puerto Rican immigrants, the Sharks. Tony, who had been the founder of the Jets, but has since grown older and has left the group, is the best friend of Riff, the current leader. He meets and falls for Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Racial prejudice and intolerance lead to the inevitable tragedy.

From where I was sitting, it looked like a full house which, really, wasn't that surprising as this is not a musical that is staged very often in Adelaide, particularly a professional touring production from Opera Australia, restaging the acclaimed BB Group London production. The groundbreaking and iconic choreography of the original director, Jerome Robbins, has been faithfully recreated by choreographer/director, Joey McNeely, a past student of Robbins.

In a bold twist, the cast for this production has been drawn from young emerging artists whose ages more closely match the ages of their characters than is normally the case, where established performers play younger characters. In the film, in fact, only a couple were still in their late teens, with most in the 22 to 27 age range, George Chakiris being the eldest, and Rita Moreno, who played Anita, was 30 at the time.

There are times when a glimpse of inexperience shows through, or certain notes seem to be a little bit of a struggle, but I doubt that the majority of the audience would have noticed that, any more than they'd have picked up on the occasional loss of orchestral detail due to amplification.

Todd Jacobsson, as Tony, and Sophie Salvesani, as Maria, make a delightful pairing as the doomed lovers, with plenty of charm from his characterisation, and a nice level of naivety from hers.

Molly Bugeja is notable as Anybody's, the tomboy who wants to be accepted as one of the Jets, and there are strong performances from Keanu Gonzales, as Bernardo, Noah Mullins, as Riff, and Anthony Garcia, as Chino, but the real standout, the genuine 'triple threat', is Chloé Zuel, as Anita, who sets a very high standard for the rest to follow.

There are a few adult characters, of course, and Ritchie Singer, as the fatherly Doc, Paul Dawber, as the bigoted Lt. Schrank, Berynn Schwerdt, as belligerent Officer Krupke, and Paul Hanlon, as the ineffectual mediator, Glad Hand, turn in some highly creditable performances in those smaller but very important roles.

Bernstein's music is unforgettable, Sondheim's lyrics pack a powerful punch, the revision of Shakespeare's tale of ill-fated love, by Laurents and, with that incredible Robbins choreography, West Side Story is both as relevant and as entertaining today as when it was written. It is all brought into exciting life in this production and if this limited two-week season isn't sold out yet, it should be.

The very effective set, by Paul Gallis, is a skeletal outline of tenement buildings, the huge sections moved around smoothly on several large trucks to create the different locations, coupled with projections of archival photographs of the area and greatly enhanced by Peter Halbsgut's lighting. An interesting note is that the demolition of the area was delayed to enable the film company to shoot all of the external locations. It is now one of the richest areas in New York, and considered a cultural centre. Renate Schmitzer's stylish costumes, in muted tones for the Jets and brightly coloured and glittering hues for the Sharks, complete the picture, and conductor, Donald Chan, has assembled a fine thirty-one piece orchestra, made up of largely local musicians, to do full justice to Bernstein's music.

With such a short season you should have, by now, secured your tickets but, if not, don't wait any longer. You might already be too late.

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From This Author Barry Lenny