With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment’s production of the classic is vibrant and textured, balancing the contrasts in its story of gangs and love.
The plot, which borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is of the doomed love story of two characters who fall in love despite being from enemy houses. On the streets of 1950s Upper West Side New York, these houses are the urban gangs of the Jets and their rivals, the new Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks. Former Jets member Tony (Nigel Huckle) meets and instantly falls in love with Maria (Sophie Salvesani), the young sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (Temujin Tera). The two attempt to keep their love a secret, however as the feuding gangs prepare for a rumble, their loyalties are tested, with heartbreaking consequences.
Dance represents an integral part of the storytelling to signpost the tension between characters and to express the excitement of budding romance, in contrast to later frustration and grief. Every 1950s beatnik finger snap, flick of the wrist, sharp stomping foot and long leap is precise and evocative.
Lighting is rich, while Renate Schmitzer’s costume design emphasises the youth and innocence of Tony and Maria against the bold palettes of the different gangs. The Puerto Ricans are in vibrant reds and purple, while the angry Jets appear in more muted earthy tones and denim.
There is a youthful energy to this West Side Story. Connor McMahon is a memorable Baby John, the youngest member of the Jets gang and Nathan Pavey displays an impressive stage presence as self-styled expert Snow Boy. Angelina Thomson is sensational as Maria’s feisty friend Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Huckle brings an immediate softness to the idealistic Tony. Sophie Salvesani has a stunning voice.
While the book of West Side Story may not hold up as well as the score, the musical is still a beautiful meld of Broadway dance and opera. Leonard Bernstein’s legendary score dazzles in its blend of jazz, Latin and classical inspirations to create definitive musical theatre numbers. Under Isaac Hayward’s Musical Direction, the orchestra is dynamic in its delivery of Bernstein’s memorable score.
West Side Story is a must-see musical event for both long-time fans and those new to the classic. It is a faithful revival of the original work, full of spectacle, energy and vibrancy. While its star-crossed love story may end in sadness, the electrifying journey to its tragedy is one that Brisbane audiences are privileged to have the opportunity to experience.
West Side Story is showing at QPAC until August 22nd, 2021.
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.