West Side Story brings passion and tragedy to Melbourne and Sydney theatres – by Justin Clarke

Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment and BB Group invited media to take a look at their upcoming Australian production of what The Times (UK) hailed as the “No.1 Greatest musical of all time” West Side Story.

The all Australian cast of 33 features a dynamic mix of established performers alongside some of Australia’s most exciting emerging talent in this celebrated production.

When the original Broadway production of West Side Story opened in 1957, musical theatre changed forever. A modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is set in a New York City enveloped by bitter tension between two teenage gangs: the Jets, self-styled “Americans” [led by Riff], and the Sharks, a group of young Puerto Ricans [led by Bernardo] and remains as important and relevant today as it was when it was first created.

Joey McKneely’s vibrant staging of West Side Story has received world-wide acclaim since its premiere at London’s Sadler’s Wells. McKneely is a two-time Tony Award-nominated choreographer whose Broadway credits include Smokey Joe’s Café, The Life, Twelfth Night, The Wild Party and The Boy From Oz.

When asked about his illustrious career, Mckneely said receiving his two Tony Award-nominations was “extremely validating, especially from the theatre community”.

While discussing this latest production of the acclaimed musical, it was clear McKneely was extraordinarily passionate about the entire process. He revealed that this version of the show is “fast paced [and] devoid of time and place”, choosing to opt out of the use of cliché backdrops of the old Broadway version and instead bring “the original choreography of the show and infuse it with skills of the cast but always stay true to the text.”

McKneely, working with the original production of this show with original choreographer Robbins, said about the Australian cast “they are the youngest cast I’ve ever worked with, that any professional production of this show has worked with”. I questioned whether this was important to him when creating the show, “it was extremely important,” he stated, “obviously Tony needs to sing a B-flat, so this is something you look for in someone who has the training behind them, but the ensemble, who don’t need to sing a B-Flat,” he joked, “need to be able to move with the intensity of the choreography and still fit with the look of the show.”

When discussing that most shows with teenage characters in the theatre scene choose to cast adults that are much older than those they are portraying, McKneely said that his cast, “brings realism to the show” and also “[brings] forward the tragedy and the themes [the show deals with]”. With rehearsals currently in their second week, McKneely chose to split the process, focusing on the “intense choreography”, he said with slight glee, “in the first week and this week dealing with the emotion of the scenes.”

As “The Jets” the ensemble will include Joshua Taylor, Nicholas Collins, Christian Ambesi, Nathan Pavey, Blake Tuke, Sebastien Golenko, Molly Bugeja, Joseph Donovan with Natasha O’Hehir, Angelica Di Clemente, Taylah Small and Sarah Dimas.

Completing the cast as “The Sharks” will be Anthony Garcia, Keanu Gonzalez, Daniel Assetta, Matt Antonucci, Jason Yang-Westland, Brady Kitchingham, Daniel Wijngaarden with Zoe Ioannou, Olivia Carniato, Nikki Croker, Amba Fewster and Ariana Mazzeo.

They join the previously announced Todd Jacobsson as Tony, Sophie Salvesani as Maria, Chloe Zuel as Anita, Noah Mullins as Riff, and Lyndon Watts as Bernardo.

The realism and relevance in the characters is something that has also resonated within the cast. Sitting down with Chloe Zuel, Lyndon Watts, Noah Mullins and Daniel Assetta (Moose & alternate Tony), they each expressed the respect and honour they felt towards McKneely’s rehearsal process. “It’s an honour to work with Joey,” said Zuel, “it definitely brings a level of pressure to get it right however when you’re working with someone on his level.” Sitting there breathless, it was clear the cast were giving it their all in the rehearsal process.

Zuel plays Anita, saying about her character, “She is the confidante, the voice of reason to Bernardo’s brashness. She’s also Maria’s true friend, she’s the sex, the sass and she represents love,” adding that Anita, “is like a big sister to Maria,” something she, and dance partner Watts, found came naturally to them, given the ages in the cast.

Watts plays Bernardo, the partner of Maria, who “represents the American dream, he’s the product of what happens to someone who is confronted with racism, discrimination on a regular basis,” adding that these themes are “something that [Watts] has had to deal with in the past, something [his] father’s had to deal with, so it was good to be able to draw on these experiences and bring it to the forefront of [Bernardo]”.

For Mullins, this is his first professional show, revealing that “it was such an experience to see people who you’ve admired for such a long time and saying “I’m going to be on stage with them one day” and then suddenly be here.” He described his character Riff as the character who “brings the group together…the Jets don’t really have a stable family life and the group provides that,” adding that, “they’re a group who are afraid of change,” something that he felt resonates with the current affairs of today.

Assetta, playing one of the Sharks (Moose) and the alternate Tony, said about the lead character, “he is on a quest for love. It leads him to face emotions and do things he never thought he could or would do. So, he’s breaking out on a discovery of love.” He expressed how lucky he was to have the chance to portray such an iconic character in one of the most iconic shows, “it’s a dream to do. The rehearsal process is extremely difficult. Having done shows in the past [Book of Mormon] that’s demanding vocally, this is demanding physically.”

When asked about McKneeley both stated that “[Mckneeley] directs through resonating the emotion of the scene. If it’s rough and violent he will usually be yelling but when it’s the opposite, if it’s intimate, he speaks really caring and honest. It helps to see what emotions we should be presenting.”

So, what should Australian audiences expect from this production? “Come and experience and feel,” McKneely says to us. He wants us to “see reality on stage” and essentially, leave behind the camp feel of the 50’s original. Zuel and Watts express the same idea, saying to “expect to see realism. It’s confronting seeing these issues brought to light but it’s important”, with Mulins and Assetta adding “this production is intimate. It shows the power of love,” but also what can happen if hate triumphs, “people die.” It’s a strong notion and something for audiences to think about when seeing this classic musical. It’s not just a spectacle, but something much deeper and resonates with our humanity.

West Side Story will play a strictly limited season at the Arts Centre Melbourne in April 2019, and Sydney Opera House from August 2019.

MELBOURNE 

Arts Centre Melbourne 6 – 28 April 

SYDNEY 

Sydney Opera House 16 August – 6 October 

CANBERRA

Canberra Theatre Centre 10 – 27 October

ADELAIDE 

Adelaide Festival Theatre 28 November – 15 December 

Booking: www.westsidestory.com.au or www.opera.org.au

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