Opera Australia reboots West Side Story at Crown Theatre after COVID pause

David CusworthThe West Australian
Jets face off against Sharks for Opera Australia’s reboot of West Side Story at Crown Theatre.
Camera IconJets face off against Sharks for Opera Australia’s reboot of West Side Story at Crown Theatre. Credit: Will Russell

West Side Story’s retelling of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet through the lens of New York gangs in the 1950s is almost a step back to innocence after the Trump era of carbine-toting militia.

Yet the tragic romance shines through in Opera Australia’s revival of Leonard Bernstein’s enduring musical, running at Crown Theatre until July17.

For sheer exuberance, energy and clarity of dialogue, song and dance, this extravaganza is a breath of air in an attenuated artistic atmosphere — especially after WA’s latest lockdown confined the cast and crew to quarters for the first week of their run.

Key to the drama is the allegiance of the lovers, Tony (Nigel Huckle) and Maria (Sophie Salvesani) to their clans — Yankee “Jets” and Puerto Rican “Sharks” — and to each other.

Tony enters the cauldron of a faceoff between his mate Riff (Noah Mullins) and Bernardo (Temujin Tera), a scene set with balletic braggadocio by the gang members; gestures and diction crisp across the cast.

Maria (Sophie Salvesani) and Tony (Nigel Huckle) lead the cast of Opera Australia’s reboot of West Side Story at Crown Theatre.
Camera IconMaria (Sophie Salvesani) and Tony (Nigel Huckle) lead the cast of Opera Australia’s reboot of West Side Story at Crown Theatre. Credit: Will Russell

While the partnership of Tony and Riff is close, Huckle’s light tenor in Something’s Coming, full of youthful promise and joy, sets him apart from the mob.

Across town, Anita (Angelina Thomson) is in love with Bernardo, Maria’s brother, and Maria is promised to Chino (Tomas Kantor).

Thomson is a force of nature, full of colour in character, voice and dance, while Salvesani holds her fire until The Dance at the Gym when, amid an explosion of emotion and movement, she and Huckle are bracketed in a spotlight, and the die is cast.

Sweet strings under musical director Isaac Hayward’s expansive baton underline the innocent infatuation of the first kiss, cueing up another classic song for Huckle; Maria, savoured like a fine wine.

Set changes are swift and efficient, from tenements with a vintage New York backdrop to colourful shimmer for mass dance routines.

For the balcony scene, Huckle climbs a labyrinthine structure of fire escapes and balconies, the brutality of its appearance a counterpoint to the delicacy of young love.

Tonight — the couple’s first duet — is as fresh as so many years ago, testament to its enduring quality and the talent of the two leads; gently and genuinely moving in their evident affinity for this and the later wedding scene, One Hand, One Heart.

America — another iconic number — brought together Thomson and Tera, as tempestuous a duo as any in Shakespeare, and gave Anita’s cohort of Shark girls a star moment; feisty dynamics, angular dance steps and robust off-beat rhythms neatly co-ordinated across choristers and orchestra.

When the inevitable Rumble comes around, all the dominoes start to tumble.

Beautiful and brutal in equal measure, it set up a cliffhanger – but took the first half to nearly 90 minutes; too much for some who chose an early interval. A case for champagne over beer.

Sustained throughout by the score, the second half played out as a pastiche of styles; from romance and pathos to dream, then vaudeville, and finally violent drama.

The Shark girls join Anita (Angelina Thomson) in America, for Opera Australia’s reboot of West Side Story at Crown Theatre.
Camera IconThe Shark girls join Anita (Angelina Thomson) in America, for Opera Australia’s reboot of West Side Story at Crown Theatre. Credit: Will Russell

Thomson and Salvesani shared passionate interplay for A Boy Like That and I Have a Love, two powerful principals mixing romance and tragedy in full, clear tones.

Molly Bugeja as Anybodys – in the language of its time – played a running comic cameo, full of tomboy energy until the climactic Taunting Scene turned her to tears.

Somehow the whirlwind action then overtook emotion, and when the fatal final shot was fired laughter broke through.

Yet Salvesani was up for the moment, poignantly mourning over her slain lover’s body as Somewhere (There’s a place for us) keened out in the orchestra.

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

West Side Story is at Crown Theatre until July 17.

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