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West Side Story

"the musical’s overall message of acceptance rings hollow"

Audrey review: Joey McKneely's faithful staging only serves to highlight how dated a show - even one that was radical in its time - can become.

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Category: Musical
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West Side Story

Date: 21 Aug 2019

The Jets and Sharks have rumbled twice in Sydney this year.

First there was Francesca Zambello’s romantic take on the classic musical for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. America was punctuated with fireworks and Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography looked stunning in the rain.

Now, choreographer Jerome Robbins’ onetime ensemble dancer Joey McKneely has brought his globetrotting tour-friendly production of the show back to Sydney (it was last here in 2010), after stints in Melbourne and Wellington.

This time, there are no fireworks – in both the literal and the figurative sense.

West Side Story, an update of Romeo and Juliet that finds star-crossed lovers in the middle of a turf war between white and Puerto Rican gangs in mid-century New York, is a love story that pleads with its audience to be more accepting of people who are different. How can this interracial love be wrong, it asks, when it’s as beautiful as the first time you fell in love? Didn’t you also hear music playing when you said their name?

This is a production that prides itself on honouring the original, preserving the choreography and intent from Broadway in 1957. The cast is talented and hardworking. And yet ….

This a show that works – when it works – because it’s propelled by feeling – found in the achingly beautiful score by Leonard Bernstein, and the still arresting, astonishing dance. But in this production the orchestra, musically supervised and conducted by Donald Chan, rushes the tempo. Those shimmering notes that hang in the air and make you feel things – feel everything – are thrown away with punishing pace. You can’t go on an emotional journey at 110km per hour, and the musical feels flattened out and vacant as a result.

And while McKneely has lovingly honoured that now iconic, long-lined choreography, the set, lined with laddered scaffolding, is cramped. These are committed and striking dancers, but there’s barely any room for them to move. Somewhere – the wistful musical number that dreams of a place that would let people from different backgrounds walk side by side – is sung offstage, lovers Tony (played on opening night by Daniel Assetta) and Maria (Sophie Salvesani) largely absent so the dancers can do their thing. It’s like losing an emotional anchor.

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A production of West Side Story in 2019 that is faithful to the original above all else only serves to highlight how dated a show can become, even this one, which was radical in its time. In the musical’s haste for a message of nonspecific ‘let’s all get along’ togetherness and community, so many are dismissed. Even though the show was reportedly designed as an out and out please for racial tolerance, the white Jets have complex, differentiating identities while the Puerto Rican Sharks are still the ‘other’ and built on stereotypes.

This unfairness hits harder when the show rushes through numbers like A Boy Like That/I Have a Love – we barely see anyone weep over Bernardo (a stoic Lyndon Watts), Maria’s brother and Anita’s lover, when he is killed by Tony. Even unconsciously, this production favours and prioritises the value of the white bodies onstage.

Plus, the Jets’ sexual assault of Anita (Chloe Zuel) is brutal to watch, particularly as high numbers of Australian women suffer from sexual violence. Their treatment of Anybodys, the tomboy-coded girl who wants to be in the gang, feels similarly under-examined (particularly when a 2019 audience might fairly read Anybodys as queer or gender non-conforming).

The jerky, animalistic choreography in Dear Officer Krupke, designed to indicate mental illness and provoke our laughter, feels cruel.

And then there’s the problem of casting: while Salvesani has a lovely tone and is well-suited to sing the part of Maria, she’s not of Latinx descent, and neither is the charismatic Zuel, or Watts, and many of the cast playing Puerto Rican heritage aren’t either; they were selected for what director Joey McKneely called their ‘ethnic’ look and feel.

Zambello’s production, too, was a contradiction: it was thoughtful and full of feeling, but still placed a white woman front and centre as the show’s ostensible Puetro Rican female lead; the Latinx women in the cast danced behind her as backup. It was a chilling image in a production that otherwise seemed to weep for racial injustice.

The result of McKneely’s casting is a production that is perhaps less white than many previous productions of West Side Story, but watching non-Latinx performers adopt thick accents, effectively trying on ethnicities that are not their own like it’s on par with wearing a costume, feels more than uncomfortable.

And because McKneely’s show doesn’t stop to let us feel the characters’ pain, and glances over difficulties in keeping the show fresh, this inequity is even more noticeable.

Without a directorial vision that mitigates, interrogates, or even makes a show at grappling with these inequities – and McKneely prefers to side-step these issues and play them straight – the musical’s overall message of acceptance rings hollow. Take away the yearning message in the score by flying through it, and leave old ideas unedited, and you’re left with something frustratingly insincere.

It looks and sounds pretty, but it’s shallow.

This content created with the support of City of Sydney

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