Francesca Zambello’s new production of West Side Story is, from a visual standpoint alone, the most impressive I’ve ever seen.
With the Sydney skyline serving as a backdrop, we get a true sense of the story’s urban scale. Yes, the action is confined to a few Manhattan blocks over which two gangs compete for ascendency, but its central tragedy – that of Tony and Maria – is made to echo across the city.
This is the first musical staged in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour annual event but this highpoint of the Broadway form seems perfectly at home on the floating stage. Even the traditional fireworks – which fire at the climax of ‘America’ – have found a natural place to pop.
Brian Thomson’s set looks an eyesore in the pre-show dusk: basketball court lines on the deck; a concrete overpass above; a mess of graffiti-covered subway cars (I was reminded of the old Harold Park tramsheds, prior to them being gussied up). But when the show kicks off, John Rayment’s lighting turns it into something quite magical – a place where love can bloom.
With a lot of distance to cover, choreographer Julio Monge has his dancers attack Jerome Robbins’ routines with vigour. While remaining graceful, the male ensembles – the Sharks and the Jets – are muscular to the point of brawny. They make their movie counterparts look svelte and unthreatening.
The female dancers are lithe and passionate – an impression accentuated by the water spray kicked up during the opening night downpour that doused the first 45 minutes of the show. If only there was some way to confine the rain to the stage …
The casting of Julie Lea Goodwin as Maria will strike many as problematic (given that Australia’s musical theatre ranks are more diverse than those of its opera companies) but the strength and suppleness of her voice lends dramatic heft to the role. Her duets with Alexander Lewis’ Tony are scintillating for all their sweetness.
In the second tier roles, Mark Hill shines as Riff, as does Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as his opposite number, Bernardo.
Scott Irwin (Lt Schrank) and David Whitney (Doc, the owner of the corner store) are strong in non-singing roles.
And while there is no shortage of fireworks, Karli Dinardo’s Anita is easily the brightest firecracker of the night.
Leonard Bernstein’s propulsive score, delivered by an orchestra under the stage and with no instrumental corners cut, sounds superb.