West Side Story Packemin

Less than two weeks ago, she completed an almost two-year run helping to tell the tale of student revolutionaries in early 19th century Paris.

And after barely having the chance to catch her breath, Elisa Colla has found herself at the centre of another classic tale, this time taking place in an ethnic, working class neighbourhood of New York in the 1950s and focused on the deadly rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks.

Colla is starring as Maria in Packemin Productions’ West Side Story, opening next Friday 5 February at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre. Luigi Lecente is Tony, Rowena Vilar is Anita and Tony Cogin is Doc in a production that follows on from Packemin’s back-to-back sell out successes of Phantom of the Opera and Mary Poppins in 2015.

It’s an opportunity for audiences to see Colla play one of her greatest stage roles to date. Since graduating from the Australian Institute of Music in 2009, Colla has built up an impressive CV of professional theatre credits. Fans of Wicked will remember Colla in the role of Nessarose during the hit musical’s premiere Sydney season in 2010 – a role she then went on to play across Australia, Singapore and South Korea.

Since mid-2013, Colla has performed in Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables as a member of the ensemble and covering the role of Cosette.

Speaking to Theatre People earlier this week after a West Side Story rehearsal, Colla spoke of her gratitude for having had the opportunity to take the stage in Mackintosh’s Helpmann Award-winning production. “It’s one of those shows that I think a lot of musical theatre performers want to be a part of,” she says. “As soon as I found out it was coming to Australia, I knew I had to audition for it.

“To be a part of such a special production was a dream come true, and such a challenging and rewarding experience…”

Turning the conversation to West Side Story, it’s clear that if Colla’s indications are anything to go by, it’s already shaping up to be another successful season for Packemin. “Seeing the run last night made me really happy to be a part of this production,” she says.

“It’s so refreshing to sing that music as well…You forget how beautiful West Side Story is until you see it again or until you do it.”

Colla is relishing the opportunity to play one of musical theatre’s most iconic leading ladies. And she’s certainly no stranger to Arthur Laurents’ reimagined Romeo and Juliet. “It’s always been a favourite of mine,” she says.

“When I started to learn to sing when I was about 16 [or] 17, there were a couple of songs that I learned from the show. One of the first songs I sang was I feel pretty.”

“Maria really sat in my voice quite comfortably.”

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Elisa Colla is Maria in Packemin’s West Side Story

Next year will mark 60 years since the original Broadway production opened. Both a critical and commercial success, West Side Story is regarded by many critics to this day as one of the greatest musical theatre works of all time.

Why was it’s first staging such a watershed moment for theatre? And why does it continue resonating with audiences today?

West Side Story really marked a turning point in American musical theatre when it debuted, with the dark themes, the sophisticated music, the extended dance scenes and the focus on social problems,” Colla says. “I think that the social problems probably still resonate today.”

“[West Side Story] is timeless…I don’t think it’s ever going to get old.”

Asked what she’s finding most challenging in playing Maria, Colla explains: “Maria is torn between two worlds, one being her Puerto Rican heritage – and the expectations that come with it – and then the opportunities of this new place in which she lives, New York, and the new love she has found with Tony.

“Probably the biggest challenge is showing those two sides – that she’s faithful to her heritage, but she’s so accepting of others and a society that’s so different to hers…I want to be able to show those two sides of Maria.”

Having said that, Colla is excited to be tackling a lead role and to have the chance to do so in a Packemin production. “I’ve actually wanted to do a Packemin show for several years now…and I’m excited about the opportunities that may come from this as well.”

For those unacquainted with the company, Packemin Productions was founded in 2010 with a remit to produce high quality Pro-Am (professional-amateur) musical theatre. Giving amateur performers the rare opportunity to work side-by-side with working professional actors in shows with high production values, Packemin has gone from strength-to-strength since its inaugural production, and has become a frequently talked about and highly respected musical theatre production company in Sydney.

As well as Colla and her abovementioned co-stars, other seasoned performers to have had the Packemin experience include Ben Mingay, Penny McNamee, Amanda Muggleton, Shaun Rennie, Rodney Dobson and Luke Joslin.

Discussing her own Packemin experience, Colla shares how much she’s enjoying herself. “[Packemin] is a fantastic company. I think it’s wonderful to be able to involve professionals and amateurs [and] to work together. And having Luigi Lecente as my Tony is so wonderful. He’s such a beautiful actor. It’s so nice to play off of him.”

Colla tells Theatre People she thinks so many professional actors are drawn to Packemin by the high quality productions and because of the great performing experience it offers them. “It’s very good exposure, especially if you’re trying to be seen in a lead role… You get to show what you’re capable of,” she says.

As to the best part of belonging to the current Packemin team, she says: “What I enjoy most is the excitement that everyone has. Everyone’s so excited and happy. They’re having such a great time.

“I think it’s fantastic being able to make new friendships with those who are really inspired and really trying to make a step into the industry. It’s nice to work with a whole range of experience and talent.”

Colla adds: “It’s really nice to be able to share your experience with someone who’s so eager and really wanting to be able to [follow] the same path.”

So why should Theatre People readers head across to Parramatta and see Packemin Productions’ West Side Story?

“Packemin always put on very special productions,” Colla says. “There’s a lot of heart that goes into their shows – a lot of hard work, a lot of people that put so much time and energy into this show for nothing in return…”

And if that’s not enough? “It’s West Side Story! It’s going to be beautiful!”

Packemin Productions’ West Side Story plays at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta from 5 – 20 February. To book tickets, click here.

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