West Side Story – Theatre Review

It’s crazy when you think about the events that occur in West Side Story, as dramatic as they are, all happen within the space of two days. But the 1957 classic musical, inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was always going to be a tragic romance.

West Side Story is set in a 1950’s New York neighbourhood where two teenage street gangs of different ethnicities are in a turf war. ‘The Jets’, a group of young Caucasian men loathe upon ‘The Sharks’, the Puerto Rican migrants who despite moving to a new country are also very against those who are different to them. The war becomes worse when Jet gang leader Riff’s best-friend, Tony falls in love with the Shark gang leader, Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria. And I guess, the rest (as we know) is history.

The 2019 Melbourne production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story feels fresh with its young talented cast. For many in the show, this production is their first musical and professional debut, and it shows. I found the group of actors who play The Jets quite lacklustre and disappointing. I felt that The Jets lacked chemistry with each other. Even from the opening scene, they’re meant to play a tight teenage street gang, but I didn’t really feel the comradery that they’re supposed to have. They weren’t intimidating nor frightening at all. Even in the most pivotal scene, the actions of their characters only made me slightly uncomfortable and didn’t give the impact that I would like to have witnessed.

The actors who play The Sharks were much more convincing in their performance. You really believe that they came from nothing, moving to a new country to start a new life, and they have each other’s backs. I found Lyndon Watts outstanding as Bernardo. The way he is so protective of his people, of his family, to want what is best for them, but unwittingly being narrow-minded. Sadly, I didn’t find Todd Jacobsson’s portrayal of Tony the confident alpha-male that I expected and perhaps this is due to him being outshined by Sophie Salvesani’s Maria. Tony and Maria’s duet “Tonight” made me feel nothing. While Sophie Salvesani’s solo of “I Feel Pretty” was a delightful and fun, and Salvesani’s singing is beautiful, her portrayal of Maria when she wasn’t singing left me cold. I didn’t connect with either of their characters.

But it’s Chloe Zuel’s portrayal of Anita that is a standout of this production. Despite not being in as many scenes, Zuel commands the stage with her presence and brings so much depth to Anita in a way that I have never seen before. ‘Independent, strong and feisty’ transitioned into ‘frightened, angry and broken’ by Zuel so effortlessly. Not to mention her performance of “America” is the highlight of the show.

I loved original choreography which cleverly covers various dance styles from jazz to Latin dance. I also was thoroughly impressed by the smart lighting and clever scene transitions. The set which consist of balconies, ladders and stairs look basic, but are so effective in helping tell the story while giving the feel of a 1950’s New York neighbourhood.

The 2019 Melbourne production of West Side Story is colourful, entertaining and despite its few flaws, is still worth watching – not for the tragic love story, but for the music the topics the show addresses; discrimination, prejudice, racism, misogyny and sexual harassment, even with the musical being 62 years old, are all still relevant issues today.

West Side Story is currently playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre until April 28th. Photo by Jeff Busby.

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