‘Something crucial is missing’: Robert Reid is uninspired by Opera Australia’s West Side Story
West Side Story is one of those works that become iconic of its era: its tropes are now enshrined in popular culture, parodied and referenced countless times as part of a pop lexicon for the American beatnik and jazz era. It’s certainly the classic of Broadway classics.
Written by Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein, it debuted the lyrics of Steven Sondheim and famously takes the narrative structure of Romeo and Juliet as its template, reframing it as an ethnic struggle between rival gangs the Sharks (the local Puerto Rican gang) and the Jets (the Irish Catholics) in the slums of 1950s Manhattan.
Something crucial is missing in the waxworks face of this production, in which Opera Australia remounts Joey McKneely’s production, which premiered at Sadlers Wells in London in 2013, with an Australian cast. Here it’s reanimated but not reinvigorated, with the air of a historical recreation. It shows how the longer works remain in aspic, the less they function as art; their preservation blunts the edge of contemporary commentary, transforming them into nostalgia for simpler times.
West Side Story mostly made me think of an incredibly well-funded high school production. Maybe that’s partly because it’s so often done as a high school production; but seeing Jerome Robbins’ original choreography recreated and imprinted onto this production highlights the uninspiring decisions made around it.
In fact, production choices throughout the show distract with their half-formed ugliness. The Jets jackets and uniform, for example, with their khaki coloured, shiny bomber jackets, shirts and pants, and a bright orange, skinny tie. Or the rendering of the Jets logo, which recalls ‘50s aerodynamic design or the Topps logo on kids’ collectors cards. Moments swim in vast silences, or blunt blocking is singled out in a spotlight or two, floating in darkness.
The performances are variable. The acting is generally flat, with moments of unruliness: it shifts between not quite reaching the emotions it reaches for, and punctuating the soundscape with “booms” and “hahs”. The cast is at its strongest when in movement, but even these classic moves lack precision, creating messy renditions that shed their energy rather than burn it. Every fractionally-late turn, weak extension or turnout blurs the work.
Standouts are Chloe Zuel as Anita and Sophie Salvesani as Maria, whose voice which shows the strength and clarity of good training. The same can’t be said as confidently for the men; Todd Jacobson, for example, struggles as Tony, slightly off-pitch here and there. These are complex melodies, with tonal shifts and monochromatic modulations that make deceptively simple songs like Tonight or Maria into minefields.
The set consists of two walls of scaffolding constructed to look like the back alleys, balconies and fire escapes of Manhattan. They swing in and out to transform the space, unpacking like nesting tables to become the bridal shop or Maria’s balcony. This is striking against the Robert Wilson-esque cyclorama of glowing gradients of colour. Otherwise the screen shows massive projections of black and white photos: New York skyscrapers, the iconic landscapes of Alfred Steiglitz and Berenice Abbott. These projections are the most effective parts of the design, dwarfing the action below without overwhelming it.
The best aspect of this production remains the original work: the janky chord progressions and atonal score, the mix of dance forms in the choreography, the blend of appropriated Latin styles and rhythms, all recall ‘50s jazz and art. The rumble and the dream ballet are, of course, classics of modern American choreography, and generate the same frisson of nostalgia as the black and white photos, conjuring Jackson Pollock or Allen Ginsberg, as if a beat poet walked over your grave.
It’s troubling too to watch the reaffirmation of tropes of cultural and gendered essentialism: the portrayal of “hot-blooded” Puerto Ricans, or toxic masculinities dressed as “honour”, where you gotta stick together with your boys and fight alongside them or you aint a man.
It was a different time, that’s certain. This museum piece is entertaining, but, as with the MTC’s production of A View From the Bridge, I wonder how well the ghosts of past conflicts can measure our present crises. How effective is an inexact correlation? The racism facing poor immigrant communities in ‘50s New York might resonate with, say, the imagined crisis of Melbourne’s African Gangs, but all that nostalgia provides too comfortable a buffer between then and now.
I can’t help thinking how groundbreaking, even shocking, this would have been in its day, with its ugly, violent choreography, its slice-of-life drama grafted onto the Romeo and Juliet structure, its dissonant and complex melodies. I left wondering how it might be possible to recapture that edge, how to sharpen the show to explode its complacent nostalgia. This production wasn’t it.
West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Director and choreographer Joey McKneely. Set designed by Paul Gallis, costumes by Renate Schmitzer, make up by Hannelore Uhrmacher, sound design by Matt Grounds, lighting design by Peter Halbsgut, re-light design by Adam Sutton. Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment and BB Group at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne. Until April 28. Bookings https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/musicals/west-side-story
Not suitable for children under the age of 12.
Wheelchair access, assistive hearing