Bright young stars shine In West Side Story: a review by Victor Grynberg

August 22, 2019 by Victor Grynberg
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If PORGY and BESS is the pre-eminent American Folk Opera, then certainly WEST SIDE STORY is the outstanding American Musical.

Originally conceived as “East Side Story” it was to be a reworking of the Shakespeare classic “Romeo and Juliet” with the two gangs representing young east side Italians and Jews.

With a creative team entirely made up of Jews, Leonard Bernstein music, Arthur Laurents book, Stephen Sondheim lyrics and Jerome Robbins choreography and original direction, it was probably a wise move to change the storyline to residents of the Upper West Side. The Polish origin youth of the Jets and the resented Puerto Rican immigrants banded together as the Sharks.

After it’s stunning debut on Broadway in 1957 and the much-acclaimed movie from 1961 this work has never stopped being played, including an incredibly successful season earlier this year on Sydney Harbour as a Handa Opera. This newest production was always going to attract a lot of attention, especially after Opera Australia announced they were doing this production with a deliberately young cast. And they certainly have stuck to their promises.

To cast as Maria an actor making their professional debut is a big ask. If not quite as strong in acting as no doubt she will become later, Sophie Salvesani sang songs so well known to everyone with beauty and clarity to her excellent voice. “I Feel Pretty”, sung with co-workers, superb duets “One Hand, One Heart” the reprise of  “Tonight” and “Somewhere “ sung with her ill-fated love Tony,(Todd Jacobsson ), and solos including “A Boy Like That” and “I Have a Love”. A very impressive debut.

Also pleasing with a very melodic tone and characterisation was the more experienced Jacobson who gets to sing those beautiful duets with Maria, but also three  solo showstoppers in “Tonight” “Maria” and “Something’s Coming”.

If Chita Rivera’s Anita was the scene-stealer in the original production, then Chloe Zuel does the same in this production. A wonderful performance.

Electrifying in 1957, and still remarkably brilliant in 2019 is the Jerome Robbins’ (originally Rabinowitz) choreography.

With a West Side veteran in Director/Choreographer Joey  McKneely at the helm, the whole troupe of young performers were just outstanding in their many and varied dance routines.

Victor Grynberg

In a show of many highlights, this was certainly an important part. Aided throughout by wonderful lighting designed by Peter Halbsgut, whose name translates as Half Good but whose work is better described as “More than Fully Good”, I can’t recall better lighting of any production I’ve seen over the last 46 years at the Opera House.

Strong support to the leads was provided by Noah Mullins as Riff, Lyndon Watts as Maria’s brother Bernardo, and indeed the whole gangs of the Jets and the Sharks. Remarkably so many of these performers are making their professional debuts. Molly Bugeja typifies the energy and enthusiasm of the cast as the tomboy “Anybodys”. Outstandingly energetic in her role.  Bravo Opera Australia for entrusting these bright young talented actors with their first big breaks.

Not to be ignored are the so-called adults, especially Berryn Schwerdt as Officer Krupke, and Richie Singer as Doc.

Not only are the songs great classics, but the whole score, especially the ballet scenes, require an excellent orchestra, capable of playing the jazz-inspired parts as well as they played the romantic parts. Bernstein set a standard that has never quite been equalled.  The very distinguished Donald Chan, another West Side veteran, led the Opera Australia orchestra with great verve and direction, resulting in a beautifully played rendition of a score so well known.

A packed house gave an extremely enthusiastic reception to the show, which augurs very well for a successful season.

4 ½ stars



Joan Sutherland Theatre

Sydney Opera House

August 21st 2019

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