Review | The classic musical ‘West Side Story’ comes to Crown

West Side Story

West Side Story | Crown Theatre | Until 17th July | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

West Side Story is having a renaissance in 2021, this grand production from Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment has made it’s way to Perth, after an acclaimed season in Melbourne and Sydney.

Later in the year the musical will also return to the big screen with a new production from director Stephen Spielberg.  Which poses the question, what makes this musical that had it’s Broadway debut in 1957 relevant to contemporary audiences?

Without doubt the show, with music from the great Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is filled with memorable songs that have stayed with us through the decades. West Side Story certainly has more instantly recognisable numbers than most musicals.

From it’s suspenseful jazz infused opener of the Jet Song through Something’s Coming, Maria, America, Cool, One Hand One Heart, Tonight and the beautifully utopian Somewhere there’s hits galore. Not to mention the twee I Feel Pretty and the slapstick fun of Gee, Officer Krupke. For the outstanding music alone, West Side Story is worth seeing.

West Side Story

The plot borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – a tale that has stood the test of time. Two teenager youths fall in love but they’re from warring houses, and their union appears doomed.

Here on the streets of New York on one side is the Jets, a gang of boys from different ethnic backgrounds. While they’re rivals the Sharks are new immigrants from Puerto Rico.

Tony from the Jets meets, and instantly falls in love with, Maria, the young sister of Bernardo, the head of the Sharks. Their two kids from different sides of the ethnic chasm who have to keep their love secret, but as the feuding gangs get ready for a ‘rumble’ their loyalties are tested.

Add into the mix Police Lieutenant Schrank and his underling Officer Krupke, who are just trying to keep the streets safe from hoodlums and wayward youths.

In the age of Black Lives Matter, police brutality and complex race relations West Side Story provides a simplistic and unsatisfying answer to questions we’ve been clearly been struggling with for decades. While this productions is beautifully staged, expertly performed and filled with nostalgia, the core story is also frustrating.

As the leads sing one of the show’s most famous songs Somewhere, hoping for a time and place of living and forgiving, I couldn’t help but wonder how far off that utopia they aspire to is.
“Hold my hand and we’re half way there.” I think it’s going to take a lot more than that to take on the challenge.

So if we put aside the contemporary politics and accept that musicals may not solve the world’s greatest challenges, we are left with a thoroughly enjoyable and impressive musical time capsule that’s well worth the price of a ticket.

West Side Story

Nigel Huckle plays Tony, while opera singer Sophie Salvesani takes on the role of Maria – both are singers of impressive talent. Angelina Thomson plays the feisty Anita, a role first performed by the legendary Chita Rivera. Noah Mullins is engaging as Jets gang-leader Riff, while Temujin Tera plays rival Bernardo.

Connor McMahon is attention-grabbing playing the youngest member of the gang Baby John, and he shares some comical scenes with Nicholas Collins as A-Rab.

The set creates the tenement buildings of New York via a towering wooden scaffolding that shifts and morphs to create different settings. The costuming is stylish with bold colours and stylish outfits. The Jets wear singlets and shirts, while the Sharks sport stylish maroon, red, and dark pink suits. They’re the neatest and tidiest scalawags and ruffians, all with their shirts nicely tucked into their belts.

The choreography is true to the original style of Jerome Robbins, slick, energetic and often flying through the air. The combination of songs, dance and stylish backdrops make a potent mix.

West Side Story

Highlights include the festive and humorous America – where the Peurto Rican girls compare their different views of their homeland, the romantic Maria – as Tony sings of his enchantment, and the uplifting promise of Somewhere – which sees the characters enter a magical ballet sequence. The upbeat slapstick of Gee, Officer Krupke is a wonderful number that lets the cast members in smaller roles have their moment in the spotlight.

One weakness in the production is the accents, while casting genuine Puerto Ricans in the roles is understandably not achievable, the accents of a few performers were somewhat mysterious, and there was a moment where I wondered if some of the Sharks were potentially German.

This show is only on for three weeks and had a few dates clipped off due to the Covid-19 lockdown, so rush to see it.

Tickets to West Side Story are on sale now.

Graeme Watson, images: Will Russell.

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