West Side Story. Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Musical supervisor/conductor Donald Chan. Directed by Joey McKneely. Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until Sunday Oct 27. Bookings (02) 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
West Side Story is a grand piece and in this touring show director Joel McKneely does a grand job of taking the show back to its beginnings, particularly to the choreography of Jerome Robbins. The original inspiration is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The ending of the musical is a little different but there's still that story of young love that crosses boundaries.
Here the boundaries are set by waves of migration to New York. The Jets are the established ones, born in America, the children of immigrants. The Sharks are Puerto Rican, new to the place. Relationships between the two groups are tense, expressed in dancing that has a wonderful restless, stretching, leaping energy as the gangs eye each other off.
Against the odds Tony (Todd Jacobsson), the only Jet who has a visible job, meets new arrival Maria (Sophie Salvesani) at a dance organised to try to push the gangs to mingle.
Maria has come to New York to marry the awkward Chino (Anthony Garcia) whom she hardly knows. Jacobsson and Salvesani catch very well the sense of youthful love at first sight as poor old Chino is rapidly sidelined.
Keanu Gonzales is elegant and arrogant as Maria's brother Bernardo. Chloe Zuel is forceful, funny and in fine voice as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, worldly wise and protective of Maria.
Noah Mullins is fittingly sharp and aggressive as the Jets' leader Riff. And Molly Bugeja turns in a touching and funny performance as Anybody's, the girl desperate to be one of the Jets as a Jet, not as a girlfriend.
Adults hover ineffectually on the sidelines in neatly performed cameos. Lieutenant Schrank (Paul Dawber) threatens and cajoles, Glad Hand (Paul Hanlon) is a hand-flapping failure at running the dance in the gym and the baton wielding Officer Krupke (Berynn Schwerdt) gets that superbly insulting song (Gee, Officer Krupke) sung about him by the Jets behind his back. And Tony's boss, Doc (Ritchie Singer) has presence as the ignored prophet of doom who can see where Tony's dreams are all heading.
Although it is Jacobsson and Salvesani who have the central songs and story of Tony and Maria in their capable hands, this is a production with a strong sense of the tribe. It's a precursor of Hair and Godspell (along with a young Stephen Sondheim's deft lyrics signalling what he might do next).
The set (Paul Gallis) piles up great towers of balconies and ladders backed by black and white images of 1950s New York. The Jets and the Sharks are caught in poverty and violence at the feet of the skyscrapers, sometimes dramatically side lit by Peter Halbsgut's lighting design. But in Renate Schmitzer's pared-down costume designs the Jets can still affect a pale elegance while the Sharks are allowed more brightness and the Puerto Rican women are a riot of colour and energy.
Leonard Bernstein's music is in the deeply experienced hands of conductor Donald Chan, supporting a production that is poignant and perceptive. The high energy of the gangs is there but at the heart is the yearning of Tony and Maria for a quiet human life.