It’s an obvious statement that outdoor events run the risk of being impacted by adverse weather conditions. This happened on the opening night of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of West Side Story, when rain pelted down on the 3,000-strong crowd from the start of proceedings and didn’t relent until just before interval. Mrs Macquaries Point was a sea of ponchos.
But even the persistent rain couldn’t detract from what is an undeniably stylish and majestic presentation of one of musical theatre’s most iconic works. It’s been 62 years since Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway production, and yet West Side Story remains a pertinent and worthy piece, still deserving of a place on our stages.
It’s difficult to imagine a production of West Side Story more ambitious in scale and staged in a setting more impressive than what Opera Australia has achieved here. A cast of 42 performs on an open-air stage more than twice the size of any Australian indoor stage, which has Sydney Harbour and the city skyline as its backdrop. While Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has been a fixture on Opera Australia’s calendar now for seven years, this is the first time the company has opted to bring a musical to its overwater stage.
Led by American opera and theatre director Francesca Zambello, this production is a faithful version of the Romeo and Juliet-inspired musical set in New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s and following the rivalry of two street gangs – the Jets (who are white) and the Sharks (made up of teens of Puerto Rican heritage). Tony (Alexander Lewis), a former Jet, falls in love with Maria (Julie Lea Goodwin), the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva). Like the Montagues and Capulets that came before them, the loved-up teens quickly discover their dreams of a life together will remain just that, unable to overcome the powerful tides that divide them.
There are certainly aspects of Arthur Laurents’ book that are of the time; however, in the contemporary world, rife with fiercely divided populations unwilling to compromise and clutching their own beliefs at any cost, West Side Story still offers a compelling message. Under Zambello’s direction, the story comes to life with excellent performances from a committed lead and ensemble cast. Even in the rain, we’re quickly absorbed in the world of conflict. And when it comes to the compositions (music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), some of musical theatre’s most popular standards sound as good as they ever have.
Leading up to this production, there’s been much talk about casting and, specifically, the decision to cast a white actress in the role of the Puerto Rican ingenue, Maria. That issue aside, Goodwin is outstanding in this production. Her strong soprano sees us treated to vocal performances of ‘Tonight’ and ‘Somewhere’ that are every bit the production highlights you would anticipate. Goodwin previously played Maria in the 2009 touring production of West Side Story (a version of the show directed by Joey McKneely that will return to Sydney later this year). Her significant growth in her portrayal since that time is quickly apparent.
Opposite Goodwin, Lewis’ Tony is fittingly eager and quixotic. His stirring operatic tenor is well matched to the score, and ‘One Hand, One Heart’ and ‘Somewhere’ are particular standout moments. Quinones-Villaneueva has real gravitas and is perfectly cast as the formidable but honourable leader of the Sharks, and Mark Hill delivers as the hot-blooded leader of the Jets hell bent on instigating the demise of his opponents.
But perhaps the most impactful performance is from Karli Dinardo, who is a dominant force whenever she appears. She completely convinces as Maria’s strong-willed and concerned friend, determined to steer her out of harm’s way. Dinardo’s is a supremely confident performance; she doesn’t falter for a second. While Melbourne-born, this is her Australian debut (she’s just returned from two years spent performing in the US first national tour of Broadway juggernaut Hamilton).
Julio Monge’s choreography is some of the best you’ll see in Sydney this year, skilfully executed by this highly-talented ensemble that moves so elegantly around the epic stage, despite the obvious handicap of the rain. Meanwhile, conductor Guy Simpson leads a generous-sized orchestra in a beautiful reproduction of Bernstein’s lush score that reminds us why these songs continue to be so loved.
Sydney Harbour affords audiences of West Side Story eye-catching scenery on its own, so the visually striking world that set designer Brian Thomson has created is a tremendous bonus. Consisting of several large set pieces, from quintessential apartment fire escapes to full-sized graffitied tramcars, to an exceptionally detailed realisation of Doc’s Drug Store, Thomson recreates 1950s New York with vivid clarity. Similarly, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are visually appealing and conjure the period successfully.
Whether you’re a long-time fan of West Side Story or entirely unfamiliar with this classic musical, the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production is a theatrical event that shouldn’t be missed. This is something you can’t experience in New York or London.
HANDA OPERA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR WEST SIDE STORY – SEASON DETAILS
Playing now until 21 April 2019 (excluding Mondays and Good Friday on 19 April)
Single adult tickets from $99 (fees may apply)
Group and concession prices available for most performances.
Opera Australia Box Office
02 9318 8200