Content warning: this production contains coarse language, adult themes, racial slur,s and sexual violence.
West Side Story has opened at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, directed by Joey McKneely and featuring a cast studded with talented young Queenslanders performing Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. A retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 50s New York, written by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story is widely regarded as one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time, if not the greatest. Although I had never seen the musical before, I found myself recognising a number of the songs – the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – and a number of popular culture references suddenly made sense.
The Jets, a white gang and the sons of previous immigrants, scuffle regularly with the Sharks, a gang of young men more recently immigrated from Puerto Rico, for control of the street. As their rivalry escalates towards an all-out rumble Tony, a former Jet, meets Maria, the sister of Sharks’ leader Bernardo, and they fall in love. Tony and Maria dream of a life together, away from the violence and prejudice of their current situations, but each side will not accept their relationship with the “enemy” and this division will tear them apart in the end.
The escalation of the violence in the musical overall felt surprising, even disproportionate, compared to the boastful, boyish nature of the threats that preceded it. The sexual violence that Anita is subjected to, especially, changed the tone and elevated the Jets from a group of bored teenagers who played with knives and got hurt, to a group of men maliciously and intentionally causing harm to others because they could.
50s slang placed the musical clearly in time and space but didn’t roll easily off the actors’ tongues. Temujin Tera held command as Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, but Noah Mullins’ Riff was not immediately apparent as the leader of the Jets. Both gangs were lacking in some fundamental aggression and perhaps this is due in part to the youth of the performers, many of whom make their professional debut in this production. By contrast, Paul Dawber’s Lieutenant Schrank oozed swagger and a hunger for violence.
Nigel Huckle and Sophie Salvesani starred as Tony and Maria and there was a delightful, naïve energy to their onstage chemistry. Both impressed with their strong vocal performances, and the balcony scene in which they professed their love for one another was a highlight. Angelina Thomson was a standout performance in the role of Anita, displaying emotional versatility in her acting, impressive vocals, and sharp, high-energy dance.
Robbins’ balletic jazz choreography surprised me, and I was fascinated by the contrast of the macho dialogue and hyper masculinity of gang violence against the pointed toes and snapping fingers of the movement. The song Gee, Officer Krupke included some questionable choreography that seemed intended to mimic disabled people – if so, and even with the dedication to maintaining the original choreography, surely this brief series of movements could have been updated for a modern production. The ensemble was sharp in performing the demanding choreography, which incorporated significant leaps and lifts, especially during the dream ballet.
The costuming of the two gangs was carefully colour-coded, with the Jets dressed primarily in variations of khaki, white, and orange and the Sharks in shades of red, pink, and purple. Large, moveable set pieces created the street, the skyline, and the balconies, where some action took place, with actors climbing up and down. The backdrop showed projections of New York City, alternating between ordinary streets and recognisable skylines to further cement the sense of place. The score was performed live by a 20-piece orchestra, which added another element of depth and intensity, with musical direction by Isaac Hayward.
West Side Story is undoubtedly a product of its time but tells its story of love, youth, prejudice, and the American immigrant dream with colour and feeling, bolstered by some excellent vocal performances and the expressive performance of Bernstein’s score.