Theatre Review: West Side Story‘s limited run in Melbourne highlights why it is still the best of the best

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Widely regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time, the original 1957 production of West Side Story stunned audiences and changed the game for American musical theatre going forward. Since then there have been a multitude of productions focused on retelling this timeless story to new audiences. In 1961 it received a film adaptation directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins which went on to win ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, and both Supporting Actor and Actress. Now, it has returned to Melbourne for a strictly limited season in 2019 and it is one production you do not want to miss.

A tale that has not lost any relevance in 60 years, West Side Story follows the rivalry between two young street gangs; the Sharks, who hail from Puerto Rico; and the Jets, made up of white Americans. The conflict between the gangs is heightened when a former Jets member, Tony (Todd Jacobsson), falls in love with Maria (Sophie Salvesani), the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (Lyndon Watts). The themes of forbidden love, conflict, and other social issues make way for this thrilling musical production.

From the moment the curtains are raised in the Art Centre’s State Theatre one thing is made abundantly clear; the dance choreography is going to be like nothing you have ever seen. There is never a dull moment as the choreography alone is enough to keep your eyes locked on the stage. It’s dazzling the way the entire cast seamlessly navigates the stage during these dance sequences, to where there is always something to look at. The choreography is so tight and fine-tuned and the cast executes it to perfection, making it some of the best and most electric dancing in modern theatre.

The dancing however would be nothing without the presence of the great Leonard Bernstein‘s phenomenal score featuring a mass of unforgettable songs, helmed here by conductor Donald Chan. The music is incredible from beginning to end, lending itself to telling a chunk of the story in thrilling and inventive ways. The performance of ‘America‘ is the highlight of the show as it comes mid-way through the first act and lights up the entire theatre with brilliant stage choreography and outstanding lyrics.

Stephen Sondheim‘s award-winning lyrics are amazing and lend themselves to incredible storytelling that requires no outside exposition. Much of the emotion, character, and story is developed through the song lyrics and it’s masterly executed here by this young and talented cast. The presence of a live orchestra added so much to the production and greatly enhanced the already  electric atmosphere in the theatre.

In terms of the staging, it’s minimal with two large moveable structures on either side of the stage, but it never feels like the performers are moving in an empty space. The large structures are utilised well to indicate various locations and they’re used in conjunction with the backdrop really well to channel the atmosphere of the Upper West Side of New York City in the mid 1950’s. The stage is never barren with props and performers filling the space as needed.

The production is accompanied by a talented ensemble cast with all of the young performers playing their roles really well. Chloe Zuel (Anita), Noah Mullins (Riff), and Lyndon Watts (Bernardo) are all fantastic in their supporting roles and each have a number of moments to shine. Chloe commits and is incredible in one key scene which delves deep into the disturbing nature of sexual violence, really pushing the emotion of the story to another level. Meanwhile Noah and Lyndon have a number of scenes in which their interactions with each other and the ensemble take centre stage.

Leads Todd Jacobsson (Tony) and Sophie Salvesani (Maria) shine as their love story unfolds over the course of this production. Much of the heart and emotion is driven by these two whose forbidden relationship is the centrepiece for everything going on. Their presence isn’t greatly felt when the production begins, which is a shame, but the gradual transition into the second act really allows them to flourish on the stage and deliver some key musical and emotional moments.

As someone who never saw any of the previous productions of West Side Story, and judging by the level of acclaim it has received, this production will no doubt satisfy and excite anyone wanting to check it out. The story and themes are timeless, the music and lyrics are iconic, and it’s clear there’s a lot to love about West Side Story.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

West Side Story is in Melbourne for a strictly limited season at the Art Centre’s State Theatre through to April 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets head HERE

The reviewer attended the performance on 9 April 2019

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

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