Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A grand production of a well-loved Broadway musical
West Side Story (written by Arthur Laurents) is one of the most celebrated Broadway musicals of all time, and there are several good reasons why. It's adapted from a solid base text (William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), features brilliant music by Leonard Bernstein/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and impressive choreography by Jerome Robbins. Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment are currently presenting the BB Group production of this show at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from 6-28 April. While this production certainly benefits from everything that makes the show such a revered classic, it doesn't quite live up to the expectations you might go in with, of having your mind blown.
West Side Story is set in 1950s New York, where the Jets (a Polish-American gang) and the Sharks (a Puerto Rican gang) are embroiled in escalating tensions over dominion of the streets. These are teenagers, juvenile delinquents, who are frequently told off by adults and law enforcement officers, but are unable to keep out of trouble because of the intensity of how they experience the world. In the midst of their strife, Tony (a former Jet, best friend to Riff, leader of the Jets), meets Maria (a Puerto Rican, sister to Bernardo, leader of the Sharks) and the two fall in love at first sight. Despite their hope in love, peace and better things, their relationship is doomed to end in tragedy as racism and gang violence result in killings, rape, and amplified hate on all sides.
Needless to say, this show, with all its heavy themes, is an emotionally intense experience, and is a tremendous challenge to pull off well at the best of times. This particular production takes a while to get into: the energy and pace feel patchy especially in the first half, and there isn't much opportunity to get invested in any of the characters individually. Tony and Maria's love story is strong, but the portrayal of both characters lacks conviction from time to time. Except when they sing: both Tony (played by Todd Jacobsson) and Maria (played by Sophie Salvesani) have rich, powerful voices that grip the heart and transform the mood entirely in songs like Tonight and One Hand, One Heart. The second half of the show feels a lot tighter, and moves at a more absorbing pace.
Chloe Zuel's portrayal of Anita is easily the most impactful performance in this production. She outshines the rest of the cast in stage presence and conviction, and is the strength of America, one of the lighter highlights of Act One. The production relies heavily on her performance in the second half, especially with Riff (played by Noah Mullins) and Bernardo (played by Lyndon Watts) absent for most of Act Two. Zuel's powerful performance makes it even harder to bear the scene of Anita's humiliation towards the end of the show, and gives rise to some very disturbing questions about the story. How is it that a scene as violent and horrific as her rape is treated as nothing more than a plot device to bring about the ending? The act of forgiving killings that took place in the context of active fighting is arguably very different from ignoring unprovoked sexual violence, and the fact that the final symbolic reconciliation between the two gangs takes place without a shred of regard for Anita, sends a pretty disturbing message.
Overall, West Side Story is a show that will certainly be enjoyed by musical theatre fans and anyone looking for a grand experience of a well-loved classic, but this production promises more than it delivers, and left me a little bit disappointed.