West Side Story

Presented by BB Promotion GmbH, Ambassador Theatre Group, The Bartner Group, Norman Tulchin, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and David Atkins Enterprises in association with Adelaide Festival Centre
Reviewed Sunday 2nd January 2011

Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: to Saturday 23rd January, 7:30 evenings, various times for matinees, see the BASS web site for details
Duration: 2hrs 30mins incl. 20mins interval
Tickets: Premium Adult from $110.00/Adults from $70.00/Conc from $60.00/Child (2-15 yrs) from $60.00/Family of 4 (buy 4) from $74.75/Group 10+ (Buy 10) from $80.00
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or

The theatrical year in Adelaide began early, and extremely well, with this captivating revival production of West Side Story. The work is, of course, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and has proved to have a similar lasting value due to its universal themes and the high quality of all of its components. The setting here is 1950s New York on the lower West Side, where the Montagues and Capulets become the Jets and Sharks, rival gangs of Americans and Puerto Ricans, with Romeo becoming Tony and Juliet becoming Maria, Tybalt becoming Bernardo and Mercutio becoming Riff. From its premiere in 1957, through the ten Academy Award (Oscars) winning film in 1961, down to today, it has been performed to adoring audiences all over the world innumerable times and will, no doubt, continue to attract audiences for a long time to come.

Jerome Robbins conceived the idea for this piece, and went on to direct and choreograph the original production. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, with Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics, to a libretto by Arthur Laurents. Bernstein actually contributed considerably to the lyrics and it is rumoured that, when Bernstein became busy with Candide, which took him away from a full involvement with the project, Sondheim contributed to writing the music. Because of this, it is said, Bernstein removed his credit for co-writing the lyrics so that Sondheim wouldn’t want co-composer credit. Sondheim, in his turn, was not happy with a lot of the overly romantic and florid lyrics written by Bernstein.

The choreography is revived for this production by Joe McNeely, who chosen by Jerome Robbins to direct and choreograph a revival of the original production at La Scala in Milan. Donald Chan supervised and directed the music for this production and the superb orchestra was conducted by Musical Director, Vanessa Scammell. The 19 piece orchestra (with Associate Conductor, Ben Tienen, on Piano) shows a remarkable precision and Scammell maintains a tight control, bringing out all of the nuances. This is demanding music, with its rich harmonies, difficult intervals for the singers (Bernstein extensively used the dissonant tritone, also known as an augmented fourth or diminished fifth, to create tension in the music) and complex rhythms, but orchestra and singers alike make it seem easy.

Musically, there are four competing and contrasting sets of thematic material: the music of the Jets and their girls, of the Sharks and their girls, of Tony, and of Maria. Although Tony was the co-founder of the Jets, with Riff, who now leads them, he has moved away from them and is feeling changes that he cannot yet explain. He is disillusioned by his past and drifting, not yet having found a future. Maria is newly arrived from Puerto Rico and still has her innocence and naivety untainted by life on the West Side and the gang warfare all around her, even though her own older brother, Bernardo, leads the Sharks. The music of the Jets and their girls is strongly Jazz or Blues influenced and, unsurprisingly, there is the Latin element in the music of the Sharks and their girls. The lyrics are similarly divided, those of Maria and Tony being gentler and romantic, in strong contrast to the defiant and angry lyrics of the gangs.

This sets the work apart from the musicals that came before and is a marked contrast to many that were little more than a story linking a collection of disparate songs. This is a fully integrated piece and, looking at later works, one sees this continuing in Sondheim’s musicals and one can discern the influence on other composers that came after. The quality of the writing is attested to by the vast number of singers who have included songs from the show in their repertoire, and the numerous orchestrations and arrangements of songs or suites of music that have been written over the years. It is, of course, still one of the best known and most popular and frequently performed shows in the history of musical theatre.

Traditionally performers studied either acting, or singing, or dance and picked up a basic smattering of the other disciplines if and when required. Only in relatively recent times have training establishments begun offering courses that focus equally on all three. As a result we are now seeing young people with this multi-skilled capability coming into the Performing Arts, and works such as West Side Story can now achieve the level of performance to match the level of the writing. That is the case in this production, where all of the cast can sing, dance and act to a very high standard, making this production something very special. Even in the film the big name stars weren’t trained to be able to do everything. Marni Nixon was brought in to dub the singing voices of Maria (Natalie Wood) and, for some numbers, Anita (Rita Moreno).

The dancing in this production is energetic and exciting, and as precise as the music. There is so much happening in some of the routines that one wishes one had a rewind button in order to watch them several times over, so as not to miss anything. The whole production, in fact, is well worth seeing several times. Not only are the dance ensembles tightly woven but the solo work is also impeccable.

Likewise, the choral work is magnificent and the solos show a huge amount of talent among the cast, although the sound technician needs to stay more alert as the levels occasionally allowed the voices to be swamped by the orchestra.

The romantic leads, tenor Josh Piterman as Tony (he was one of The Ten Tenors) and soprano Julie Goodwin as Maria, are well-balanced and their operatically trained voices blend beautifully, bringing out the best in their duets. Maria and Tony are set apart from what is happening around them by both the music and the operatic requirements of the singing, befitting their songs. They both have a good emotional range, notable when Tony is told that Maria is dead, when we can see Piterman’s character collapse internally and the light go out of his eyes, and when Tony is shot and we see Goodwin’s Maria suddenly go limp as her heart breaks. This is certainly the most emotionally rich and convincing production of this musical that I have seen, and I have seen quite a few.

In the non-singing role of Bernardo, Nigel Turner Carroll carries plenty of menace in his characterisation, the violence and anger just below the surface always sensed in his fine portrayal. Rohan Browne’s interpretation of Tony’s deputy, Riff, is another strong performance

Alinta Chidzey, as Anita, stands out, even out from such a terrific cast, which is no mean feat in itself. She completely owns the stage with every appearance, dances as though her life depended upon it, sings up a storm and creates a remarkably three dimension and thoroughly believable character. One is reminded a little at times of the life, energy and enthusiasm of Caroline O’Connor’ performances, and I would not be at all surprised to find that, like her, Chidzey also goes on to carve out a major international career. She is certainly heading in that direction, judging by her performance in this role. Catch her while she is still in Australia.

Almost ever member of the ensemble has a chance, at some point, to sing a few bars, deliver a few lines, or execute a few dance moves solo, and there is not a weak link amongst them. There are a few in the ensemble who will deserve watching in the future, noticeable by that little extra bit of stage presence and confidence. Frank Garfield give a nicely sympathetic reading to the role of Doc, appalled by all that is happening around him and powerless to prevent it. You can see Doc’s frustration in his performance. Christopher Connelly and Mark Constable, as Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, make a good double act as well as delivering fine individual performances. Berynn Schwerdt nicely underplays the ineffectual social worker Glad Hand, a role so often turned into an awful caricature of no importance. He avoids that trap and finds truth in the character.

Paul Gallis’s skeletal set design cleverly evokes the high rise buildings with their fire escapes, the equivalent to the balcony of the Bard’s play, and then, as the sections are manoeuvred around the stage they clearly depict all of the other locations, with great assistance from Peter Halbsgut’s complex lighting design and projections of monochromatic photos of streets and tenements on the rear screen. On a niggling negative, I feel that Renate Schmitzer’s costumes are a tad theatrical and pristinely clean, rather than authentic, and this does tend to detract a little from the grittiness of the piece, as does an occasional shortage of machismo and testosterone fuelled violence between the two gangs when they meet. It is rather too clean cut and neat at times when it should be low-down and dirty. The West Side was an area of poverty, a slum referred to as Hell’s Kitchen, and that doesn’t always come over as strongly as it could.

That minor quibble aside, this is an exceptional production, one of the finest pieces of musical theatre that I have seen in a long while, and it is most certainly well-deserving of full houses at every performance. If you are planning to see this show, and you definitely should be, don’t wait too long to get your tickets.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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