“Go Home” says a prominent piece of graffiti scrawled across one of the set pieces of this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production, West Side Story. The two words speak reams, summing up the backdrop to the musical’s tragic plot, which updated Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and set it in the crowded tenements of Hell’s Kitchen in the West Side of New York in the 1950s.

West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, HOSHJulie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis in West Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

“Back where ya came from” spits one of the Anglo-American Jets to a Puerto Rican Shark: a phrase that still sounds all too familiar. West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957. Some elements in the show may now be showing their age, but its themes around immigration and the struggle for acceptance between different racial groups still feels utterly relevant as terrorism and nationalism take an ugly toll around the world. With the horrific events in Christchurch last week painfully fresh in everyone’s mind, the message couldn’t be more timely or heart-breaking. Composer Leonard Bernstein apparently scribbled “an out and out plea for racial tolerance” across the first page of his copy of Romeo and Juliet. The same can be said for West Side Story.

West Side Story is the first musical that Opera Australia has staged for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (which, it was announced at the opening night party, will be supported by Dr Haruhisa Handa for another four years). It was an astute choice, lending itself superbly to the large outdoor stage in this powerful production directed by Francesca Zambello.

A renowned opera and theatre director, Zambello is no stranger to the show. She has directed several productions including one in the US last year that played at the Glimmerglass Festival, Houston Grand Opera, Kansas Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and one on the floating stage at Austria’s Bregenz Festival in 2004. She also directed the inaugural 2012 production for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) of La Traviata, so she is well versed in staging large-scale, outdoor productions and knows just how to use the space.

The one thing she can’t control, of course, is the weather. Previously, OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini has seemed to have the weather gods on his side with impending rain magically disappearing at HOSH opening nights. But last night, he proved meteorologically mortal, as rain began to thunder down the moment the prologue began, and didn’t stop for at least an hour, deluging one and all. The fact that most of the audience stayed put was testament to the power of the production.

West Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

The way the cast took the rain in their stride was extraordinary. Not one of them gave any indication that they were aware of it. And funnily enough, even though they were exposed to the elements, they didn’t look that wet, thanks, no doubt, to fabric choices by costume designer Jennifer Irwin. The one concession, for safety reasons, was that the performers all wore sneakers with special soles to stop them slipping on the raked stage, where the women usually dance in heels.

The idea for the musical began in the late 1940s when choreographer/director Jerome Robbins thought of updating Romeo and Juliet to New York’s East Side with the story of a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl. He enlisted composer Leonard Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents but after working on it for a while the project was shelved. Several years later, with Stephen Sondheim brought on board to write the lyrics, they set to work again. But this time, having read news reports about violence between Anglo-American and Latin gangs, Robbins suggested they move the story to the West side.

Bernstein was keen on writing it as an opera but Robbins and Laurents wanted to write a piece of “lyric theatre”. However, there are certainly operatic elements in his sophisticated, complex score which combines jazz, classical and musical theatre styles with Latin American rhythms. He famously uses tritones to drive the action, heighten the tension, and accentuate the edgy violence between the Jets and Sharks, and then dissolves it in the gorgeous love songs between Tony and Maria ­– both of whom have to reach high into the tenor and soprano register. Sixty years on, it’s still fabulous, exciting music that gets right under the skin of the story – superbly performed here by the orchestra under conductor Guy Simpson.

West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, HOSHWest Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

And hats off to Head of Sound John Harman and Sound Engineer Des O’Neill as the sound is excellent. The only misfire on opening night was the failure of the gun shot to ring out at the end, which was a shame, robbing that moment of some of its shock.

In writing the book and lyrics, Laurents and Sondheim created their own slang, using the word “cool” before it became, well, cool, and cleverly captured the different speech rhythms of the Jets and Sharks. Sondheim has often said that he regrets the lyrics he wrote for I Feel Pretty, believing that a girl like Maria would never have used words like that. There have also been criticisms that the Puerto Rican characters trade on stereotypes. It’s a fair point, but you still believe in and care about all the characters, and the songs still thrill.

Robbins’ choreography was an essential part of the original storytelling and while some productions these days use new choreography (as Ivo van Hove’s forthcoming Broadway production will do), Julio Monge – Zambello’s associate director and choreographer – uses Robbins’ original movement. He actually worked as a dancer with Robbins’ on his 1989 production Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, which included extracts from his various shows including West Side Story.

The movement vocabulary combines the elegance of ballet with an edgy, finger-snapping street vibe. The dancing by the men is very masculine, laced with a youthful, macho aggression, while the women’s Latin-influence choreography has an exciting energy. Sixty years on, the choreography still electrifies. It has the energy to fill the large Sydney Harbour stage, and the HOSH cast more than do it justice.

The one choreographic element that now feels very dated is the ballet during Somewhere, after the murder of Riff and Bernardo. Musicals of the 1950s often used a ballet interlude, but it adds nothing to the storytelling here, and detracts from Julie Lea Goodwin’s beautiful singing as Maria to Tony (Alexander Lewis).

West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, HOSHJulie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis in West Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Brian Thomson’s set design uses iconic New York symbols, including graffiti-covered subway cars (one of which turns around to reveal Doc’s store), a small section of a tenement block for Maria’s home, and a soaring freeway overpass across the top of the stage on which is painted the State of Liberty. Jennifer Irwin’s costuming has the Jets in blues and greens, and the Sharks in reds, oranges and browns so they are easily identified, while Maria’s white and yellow dresses and Tony’s white tee shirt make them both stand out. John Rayment’s lighting shapes the stage, helping focus the action on the intimate scenes, and opening it up for the big dance numbers while keeping a sense of the brewing darkness in the story ever present.

On this flexible, appropriately grungy set that helps locate the story, Zambello directs a pretty traditional production, but one that knows exactly how to move between the intimate and larger scenes, build tension and touch you emotionally.

There was some consternation around OA’s casting of Julie Lea Goodwin as Maria, with calls for someone from a Latina background to play the role. (Sierra Boggess withdrew from a BBC Proms concert performance last year after an outcry about the casting of a white woman as Maria). That said, she is stunning in the role, capturing Maria’s innocence and passion. She sings superbly, her soprano strong and radiant, her top register electrifying and beautiful. Her diction is excellent and her characterisation utterly heartfelt.

West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, HOSHWest Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Alexander Lewis settles into the role of Tony as the production unfolds after a somewhat shaky start vocally. He struggled a bit with the high notes in Something’s Coming and Maria with its high B Flat, his voice wavering, with a lot of vibrato, but he found his form in Tonight. He may look somewhat older than Tony would have been but he gives a very convincing performance dramatically. The chemistry between him and Goodwin really fires and their scenes together are emotionally riveting and hold you rapt.

Zambello has brought together a diverse, 40-strong cast. Melbourne-born, New York-based Karli Dinardo is outstanding as Anita: fierce, funny, passionate and touching in her support for Maria. She’s a fabulous dancer and has an effortless, belting voice. There are also terrific performances from Puerto Rican performer Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Bernardo and Mark Hill as Riff. David Whitney as Doc and Scott Irwin as Lt. Shrank lend strong support, and the ensemble is also excellent.

West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, HOSHScott Irwin as Lt Shrank and David Whitney as Doc with the Jets in West Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

All in all, it’s a wonderful production that uses the large, outdoor space cleverly, thrills with its electrifying choreography and catchy, complex score, and despite the familiarity of the story still shocks and reaches into the heart. There were few dry eyes at the end. Transcending the rain and the show’s own flaws, it is one of HOSH’s best productions to date, up there with the superlative Madama Butterfly. 

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, West Side Story, runs until April 21


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