West Side Story (1957) holds a very special place in the music theatre canon and in the evolution of the modern musical. Four undisputed geniuses of American artistic life joined forces to create this groundbreaking musical- Jerome Robbins (concept and choreography), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (Music) and a fledgling lyricist in Stephen Sondheim. Bernstein was already a leading light in the world music scene as a conductor and educator, and as a composer in both classical and popular genres. Sondheim would go on to be the most bold and influential musical theatre writer of the latter 20th century.
Such an iconic work, immortalised in a fine film adaptation, poses a number of challenges to any company taking it on. Central to the show’s concept is the dancing, and Packemin’s choreographers led by Cameron Mitchell have done well to preserve the feel of Robbins’ groundbreaking blend of ballet and streetwise angularity. The dancing delivers thrills throughout the show. The vocals, too, demand a commitment to the fusion and contrast of classical European heritage, modern popular and music theatre styles. Combined with the demands of a narrative that is serious, even tragic (inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), this is a show that requires a cast of true triple threat performers in the key roles – not an easy ask even of a fully professional company.
Packemin’s producers have brought some fabulous shows to Riverside (Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast) and more recently to Chatswood Concourse. Their recent summer show, Back to the 80s was written by producer Neil Gooding and is perfectly suited to Packemin’s resources and audiences. The big energetic cast, bursting with young talent, played to highly entertained audiences of a wide variety of age, social groups and experience.
West Side Story is a very different sort of project. Mixing professional artists in some of the lead roles with up and coming young artists in the ensemble can be a risky enterprise. In this West Side Story some of the risks paid off, while some problems were not solved. Outstanding among the professionals was Rowena Vilar as Anita. She brought together astonishing energy, humour and pathos with breathtaking dancing. Her strong, high belt suited the role vocally, and she was convincing throughout the range of the role. At times though, her performance was so bold that it outshone her fellow cast members, particularly in the iconic ‘America’. Combining a professional with good amateurs in this case highlighted the difference in the skill level, and the less experienced cast could not match the intensity of Vilar’s thrilling Anita at times. Julian Kuo’s Bernardo was a good match however, and he brought a sense of danger and edge to his character. He was a convincing leader of a young Sharks gang, notable for the ethnic mix in the casting of the men. Introducing this contemporary Australian take on the ethnic diversity of New York in the 50s (the Sharks are Hispanics, the Jets white/European) was an interesting solution. However the idea didn’t follow through in the casting and costuming of the Sharks’ girls, a number of whom read as Anglo rather than the strong ethnic mix of the men.
The heart of the romance and the tragedy has to reside with Tony and Maria – the star-crossed lovers of New York’s slums in the 1950s. As Maria, the innocent young sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo, Elisa Colla is physically perfect for the role. She reads as a young teenage girl falling desperately in love for the first time and also handled the Hispanic accent well. The high range of the role famously requires a soprano with classical training and a true “legit” sound and phrasing. Colla sang the role with a warm tone and a touching fragility was conveyed by a wide vibrato and slightly breathy quality in the softer singing. This can overpower her tone at times. She handled the demands of the song Sondheim refers to wryly as his “worst lyrics” (‘I feel pretty’) very well and the audience enjoyed her fresh and charming interpretation. The problems vocally came with how her voice lacked blend and balance in the ensembles, particularly with the Tony of Luigi Lucente.
Lucente is not an obvious choice to play the heart of the show, the tenor ingénue lead of Tony. Lucente brings a stocky masculinity to the stage, and reads older than a teenage boy working at the local drug store. His voice can easily handle the demanding high range of songs such as ‘Something’s coming’ and ‘Maria’. Singing with a strong clean belt, his big notes were exciting, but the softer singing was thinner in tone and sometimes less stable. His reading, therefore, missed the full range and depth of emotions of a young man in love for the first time, and facing huge obstacles. Together, he and Colla were so different vocally, and the magic blend was missing that can be so touching in the wedding and balcony scenes.
Jonathan Nash-Daly brings youthfulness to the role of Riff and very fine dancing. He has a focused energy that works particularly well in the large group dance numbers, such as the ‘Dance at the Gym’. However, difficulties arose in the casting of older actors within the Jets who brought a very different presence to the stage. Admittedly, finding this many male triple threats in a pro-am Australian cast is impressive and there are bound to be some compromises. Special note though of Cameron Shields as Diesel, who brought a James Dean-like “angry young man” to the stage that was spot-on for this show. One to watch!
Of the more mature performers, Jordan Vassallo made a terrific cameo of Gladhand in the Dance at the Gym scene. This was a witty and layered performance that the audience clearly enjoyed at opening night. Less convincing was Jim Mitchell whose world-weary Officer Shrank fell short of giving the sense of danger and source of ridicule the authorities represent to the gang boys.
Technically, the opening night had a couple of hiccups, but hopefully any such difficulties will be swiftly solved for the rest of the run. Lighting was effective throughout, with smoke and purples predominating and creating the mood of the tenements and night time. The shop truck has a wobbly wall and small window which distracted from the action at times. Overall, though the set design serves the action well, particularly the huge cyclone wire fence creates an urban jungle atmosphere for the fight and dream sequences.
The Dream sequence (Somewhere) is notoriously challenging to stage. The creative team have made some bold choices to address what director Craig Stewart outlines in his programme notes. “Violence motivated by hatred is still a scourge that can infect and destroy youthfulness, including very recently in our own city [Sydney]”. The casting of a young Eurasian girl to sing ‘Somewhere’, the song of hope for a better future, is telling. The reference to “those against humane treatment of refugees and immigrants” was clear, though possibly not to all the audience. To embrace a strong contemporary social message within a work that did just that in its own era, is both a choice to be applauded, and a source of potential problems in the production. The didactic feel of this dream scene was at odds with its romantic intent as a dream of a future together for Tony and Maria. By introducing a child who is destroyed by violence, the song’s message of hope and the dream are both shattered, perhaps too early in the narrative, anticipating the show’s violent and shocking ending. The costuming of the chorus in this sequence in pastels worked as a strong contrast to their usual street gear, but was at odds with the stark palette that normally imbues this musical’s landscape. Nevertheless, good to see risks being taken and a new vision brought to a classic .
The generous orchestra make an excellent fist of the challenging score under Peter Hayward’s direction. A full brass section adds excitement and power from the pit, and while the strings are light on, the balance is generally achieved with the keyboards boosting the string sound. The big dance numbers have a thrilling rhythmic drive.
Ultimately West Side Story succeeds as a drama with dance, and a romance enacted through the beauty and power of the human voice. Packemin’s production works on a number of these levels, and is well worth the trip to Parramatta. The theatre is very comfortable with good sight lines. While the show is ideally fully balanced with a crack team of triple threat performers, this production brings together a blended cast of professionals and amateurs to create a good night in the theatre and a rewarding introduction to this incredibly powerful and beautiful show.