In past times it was a given that musicals had happy endings. Then along came West Side Story. Breaking the number one rule about musicals sending people out smiling and humming after that happy ending, West Side Story nevertheless managed to create its own genre and thrill audiences, despite its tragic ending.
This modern day musical take on the famous Romeo and Juliet story came from the brilliant brains of composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. So with that kind of music theatre royalty there was a fair chance it would work, when it blasted onto a Washington stage in 1957.
Nearly 58 years later, does it work for a Melbourne audience? Judging from the howls of approval and tumultuous applause in a packed opening night, it’s safe to say that yes, it does work!
While in some ways the story can feel stuck in the 1950s, at other times there is dialogue that is uncomfortably relevant – several times on opening night on stage I heard the phrase “go back to where you came from”. (Just as in the news recently with tennis star Dawn Fraser’s comments on Greek-Australian Nick Kyrgios’ court manners). La plus ça change…
The bottom line is that power struggles, gang warfare and illicit love are eternal themes, so a 2015 audience is soon hooked by the drama of the story and the irresistible music.
There have been many productions of West Side Story in Australia over the years, and I have witnessed a few of them. But this is definitely the best I have seen. Director Gale Edwards keeps the pace up, manages the pathos superbly and the energy level simply never flags. As a test, I did not glance at my watch once during the whole show, and this is my usual barometer that assesses how engaging the performance is. Every single performer owned his or her role and gave it 100 per cent – and it showed.
Under the assured baton of Guy Simpson, Orchestra Victoria delivers beautifully from its position at the side of the stage. And, as well as good casting and direction, the choreography from Michael Ralph simply makes the show zing along – the dancers do him proud and thrill the audience.
Live theatre in winter in Melbourne always runs the risk of losing people to illness, and Deone Zanotto as Anita fell victim to the singer’s curse, laryngitis. But the ever-resourceful Production Company came up with a perfect solution – Zanotto danced the role of Anita, and acted and mimed her songs and dialogue. Thanks to microphone technology, songstress Amanda Harrison was brought in at the 11th hour to sing Anita’s songs off stage, and assistant director Natalie Gilhome, delivered the dialogue. Harrison has a wealth of music theatre experience, and in her younger days, Gilhome was a regular on music theatre stages, so the triumvirate of Zanotto, Harrison and Gilhome combined fairly seamlessly to produce a winning performance as Anita.
Anna O’Byrne soared effortlessly in Maria’s songs and was a very touching and sweet leading lady – totally believable from my seat four rows from the front. Gareth Keegan’s Tony was also a delight – this is a young man who lives his roles to the nth degree, and I think we all bled with him over his dreadful dilemmas through the show. It was impossible not to identify with him. Adam Fiorentino’s Bernardo was a very strong, masculine and contained performance – he endowed Bernardo with a little bullyboy, a lot of pride and touches of softness. Sean Mulligan’s Riff was also most impressive.
In the smaller role of Shark Girl Rosalia, Bianca Baykara brought a stunning voice to her solo “Somewhere” and a delightful smile and charm to this character. Sometimes people in the ensemble draw one’s eye, and in this show I was most taken with Shark boy Pepe, Nat Jobe, and Jet boy Baby John, Franky Drousioti in his professional music theatre debut – I will be watching for these two young men in future shows, because they both have great stage presence.
What added to the impact of the show was the polish and dignity brought to the acting roles of Schrank and Doc, played respectively by veterans Neil Melville and Tony Rickards. Melville brought great strength and humour to his characterization and, while Rickards is more often cast in comic roles, his portrayal of Doc, trying to keep the peace between the gangs, was touching.
There was also one cameo role that stood out for me – Glaston Toft in the comic role of Glad Hand, who runs the dance at the gym. He only has a few minutes stage time but he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. Anyone who saw Jersey Boys may remember this deep voiced charmer from his role as Four Seasons member Nick Massi.
In summary, West Side Story started off a little tentatively, which is understandable on a packed opening night. But as soon as they hit the first dance sequence five minutes after the curtain went up, we were up and flying and the energy, power and gut wrenching pathos didn’t let up until the final scene, when I seemed to be surrounded by people surreptitiously sniffing into their handkerchiefs. This is a show that works – don’t miss it.
The picture is of Anna O’Byrne and Gareth Keegan.