Opera Australia: West Side Story

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Published: 15th April, 2019

It’s 70 years ago that Leonard Bernstein called Stephen Sondheim and the idea for a modern musical along the lines of the story of Romeo and Juliet was born. Add in the book by Arthur Laurents and choreography from Jerome Robbins, and we have a dark musical that is still going strong.

This Opera Australia production is an interesting one, making great use of a spectacular lighting plan and projections to change mood and scene. The set is on huge set of scaffolding so it’s a relatively bare stage, which gives the performers the privilege and responsibility of creating state magic for the audience.

And overall, they do that, although aficionados of this musical vary on what they think of this production. I found it fast paced and effective, though with a few flaws. The accents are inconsistent and the diction isn’t as clear as it could be.

Todd Jacobssen as Tony looks the part and his Tony is a passionate, believable one. On opening night, there were a few occasions of pitchy singing, but that seemed to iron itself out by interval, so I think we can put that down to opening night nerves.

As Maria, Sophie Salvesani has a glorious soaring soprano voice that fits the repertoire well. Her Maria is a sweet and innocent girl rather than a particularly exciting one.

For me, the star was Chloe Zuel as Anita, full of fire and passion with great timing and flair and a good music theatre voice.

As one would hope, the orchestra under the direction of Donald Chen is terrific. The choreography is exceptionally well performed, and as soon as the curtain rises, we are transported back to the America of the 1950s.

Coming only a month after the Christchurch massacre, West Side Story is another sobering reminder of what ignorance and fear of what is unfamiliar can do to a society.

If you are a West Side Story devotee you should really enjoy this production, and if you are not, it’s still a good night at the theatre.