Opening night of West Side Story at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, delivered an enlivened energy that was palpable before even stepping foot into the foyer. The pressure on any reproduction of Jerome Robbins’ prolific masterpiece is immense, due to it being one of the most highly revered and critically acclaimed pieces of theatre ever produced; but this version is one I am sure Robbins himself would be proud of.

The show opens with a fully danced prologue, a perfect introduction to the fact that movement as a form of communication is just as important as dialogue in this show. Robbins’ choreography calls for technical precision and clarity, mixed with the youthful tension of the Jets and the Sharks, and the talented cast delivered that consistently from beginning to end.

Director and Choreographer Joey McKneely’s footprint on the show was evident from the first breath of the performers; every movement laden with such specific intention and energy. His expertise when it comes to West Side Story is second to none, and it truly was a privilege to witness a production led by the Tony Award nominee.

The casting was stellar, with an overwhelming number of performers making their professional musical theatre debut in this production, but bringing a truthful fire of youth and adolescent angst into a story where it is so necessary.

Noah Mullins is a fresh but assured Riff, holding the role impressively in his professional theatre debut. Riff and Bernardo (Lyndon Watts) are a dynamic duo, with Watts’ maturity and stage experience evident as a truly perfect leader of the Sharks.

Chloe Zuel is a consummate performer and triple threat in her role of Anita, wonderfully showcasing the dynamics of the character. Zuel and the entire ensemble provided moments of much needed comic relief amongst what is quite a heavy tale of tragedy, being a modern take on the classic love story of Romeo and Juliet.

Despite the divide between the Jets and the Sharks in the story, the ensemble present a united front as performers with each scene filled with collective energy. The tale of division, love and tragedy is timeless, and delves into areas of the human experience that can be confronting at times, but equally as beautiful.

The staging was very effective, with the relatively bare and rustic set serving its purpose and adding to the overall performance. The lighting design by Peter Halbsgut was a beautiful piece of the puzzle, accompanied with the impeccable timing of the orchestra lead by the immeasurable Donald Chan. The feat that Chan performed as Musical Supervisor and Conductor is one to be admired, doing justice to Leonard Bernstein’s original direction.

One of the most euphoric moments to witness was ‘Tonight’ between Tony (Todd Jacobsson) and Maria (Sophie Salvesani). The chemistry between the characters was electric, and both Jacobsson and Salvesani stunned the audience with their vocal prowess and storytelling ability; their voices soaring high up into the State Theatre. Jacobsson’s portrayal of Tony was impressive to say the least, and Salvesani was stunning in all senses of the word as Maria.

I could go on about the merits of this show, but I will instead leave you with an encouraging word to go and see this stellar production before it is too late. It truly is an epic and timeless classic not to be underestimated. You will laugh, you will cry and you will be taken along the incomparable journey that is West Side Story.

– Indigo Hunt

West Side Story is now playing at the Arts Centre, Melbourne.

For tour details and tickets:

Photo Credit: Jeff Busby