Theatre Review: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s West Side Story proves that thunder & rainbows only happen when it’s raining

It was Wet Side Story at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour on Friday night. Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway classic was an emotionally-charged and important affair. It may have been over 60 years since this musical first premiered in the States, but its themes and feel remain as fresh and resonant as ever.

This production is the first musical to debut on the Harbour, a space that has been reserved for Operas up until this point. The story is set in 1957 in New York and involves two rival gangs. The American Jets are led by Riff (Mark Hill) while the Puerto-Rican Sharks are led by Bernardo (Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva, who is making his Australian theatre debut). The plot is based on a book by Arthur Laurents and is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of two star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks.

Julie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis play the lovers, Maria and Tony. Opera Australia have been criticised for casting Goodwin instead of a Latina actress. They use blind auditions and Goodwin is actually reprising her role of Maria here, having played it before in another production. Both Goodwin and Lewis share an excellent chemistry with one another, having worked together on shows like The Merry Widow. Goodwin successfully straddles the lines between operatic nous and a natural theatricality for this piece. Karli Dinardo meanwhile, returns from a US run of Hamilton to play Maria’s friend, Anita.

The set is very large and expansive. The stage is a floating and angled one that is around double the size of those found in a traditional theatre. In lesser hands, this could have made it easy for the audience to get a little lost or disconnected from the proceedings. Francesca Zambello’s direction certainly held our attention, even in quieter scenes like the ones that take place in Maria’s bedroom or at the Bridal Shop.

Julio Monge has put together some vibrant choreography for this piece. These moves were heightened by the inclement weather, as great sheets of water were kicked up by the ensemble at times. The moves were a vial blend of ballet, and a fresh and hot street style. The actors were completely unfazed by the deluge, they brought the same passion and conviction as they would have if they’d been inside a theatre.

This musical features hit songs like “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Maria.” These were brought to life by a live orchestra concealed beneath the stage and conducted by Guy Simpson. There were some well-timed fireworks at the end of “America”. These added some extra power and pizzazz. The proceedings served as a timely reminder of the futility of turf wars. The gang’s violence is bloody and unnecessary. It is obvious that the real answer lies in the fact that they should embrace their neighbourhood and live together harmoniously. This is an important message for all of us.

The set was made to look like a grimy slice of the Big Apple. There were three subway cars covered in urban graffiti. This darkness served a striking contrast to our picturesque surroundings on the harbour. It also provided an interesting backdrop for the gangs in their costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin. The Jets were clad in denim and cool blues while the Sharks were in striking reds, purples and yellow colours. John Rayment’s lighting style made these visual elements pop.

West Side Story was a colourful affair that encompassed many different things. There was beauty in the polished routines and exquisite singing, as well as the ugliness of racial divides and the brutal anger of the fighting youths. It was ultimately a reminder that light can come from darkness as well as rainbows and love after a rain of hatred. Clever stuff.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Handa Opera’s West Side Story plays on Sydney Harbour at Mrs Macquarie’s Point plays until 21 April. For more information head HERE.

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Natalie Salvo

My writing portfolio can be found at: https://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com/

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