Above – Nina Korbe and Billy Bourchier. Cover – Kimberley Hodgson, Ella Fitzpatrick and Jayme Jo Massoud. Photos – Keith Saunders.

Opening night was a beautiful, mild early autumnal evening. Sitting in the bleachers the audience looks at the enormous, raked stage that has been erected on pylons in Sydney Harbour, ready for the performance of Handa Opera’s West Side Story to begin.

One of the disused rail carriages on Phil Thompson’s minimal, urban set has GO HOME scrawled in graffiti across it, setting the stage for the racism and class warfare about to take place. Beyond are the glittering Sydney skyline, the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House and a cruise ship pulling out from Circular Quay. Not a word has been sung and the view alone is worth the price of admission.

Loosely based on the romantic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the combined genius of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents created one of the greatest and most enduring musicals of all time. Whilst Porgy and Bess depicted the ugly face of racism in the American South, West Side Story was the first to depict the urban experience of racism between white and immigrant groups. By choosing a working class, multiracial urban setting and incorporating jazz, Latin and classical music into the score, it marked a contemporary shift in the musical theatre form.

When the Opera Australia Orchestra, under Musical Director Guy Simpson, starts up with Bernstein’s mesmerising score – vibrant rhythms, finger clicking, jazz peppered with minor 7th chords, juxtaposed against Latin music and mixed with classical flourishes, you are instantly reminded why West Side Story is one of the great musicals. From the exacting dance routine that opens the show, the audience is bewitched.

It is the tale of star crossed lovers and two warring gangs, one white (the Jets) and the other Puerto Rican (the Sharks). The tension between the gangs has intensified to the point where they agree to meet for a rumble after a dance at the local gym (which is designated as neutral territory). Tony from the Jets meets Maria, fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico, and they fall instantly in love, enraging their respective communities.

With the disappointment of Ansel Elgort’s weak vocal performance as Tony in Spielberg’s recent film version still strong in my mind, I braced myself, hoping that relatively unknown, Billy Bourchier had the vocal chops to deliver. And he really did. Bourchier’s exquisite voice has both the purity and richness of tone for him to mine the emotional depth of the music. His 'Maria' is glorious. So is his 'Somewhere'. He has the charisma too, playing Tony innocently as a kid who wants to get out of the gang to have a better life.

Nina Korbe as Maria is terrific. A proud First Nations woman, Korbe plays Maria not as a passive ingénue, but as a determined young migrant who doesn’t want to be bound by the old expectations of the Puerto Rican community. Filled with the promise of a new country, she is open to its opportunities, so falling for Tony really makes sense.

Korbe’s powerful soprano and Bourchier’s resonant tenor voices blend beautifully in their duets evoking a genuine romantic chemistry that reflects their mutual innocence and hopefulness.

The role of Anita is a gift to a performer. Kimberley Hodgson is a true music theatre all-rounder, mastering singing, dancing and acting. Hodgson took full, glorious advantage of the role and was spectacular. She has all the necessary sass and wit, but also the grit to deliver the rage and distress her character experiences. Her 'A Boy Like That' is chillingly raw and furious.

The choreography is based on Jerome Robbins’ original moves. All praise to Revival Choreographer, Kiira Schmidt Carper for rendering it with such technical precision and to the entire company for their jaw dropping virtuosity.

The technical complexity of designing sound and lighting for an outdoor production of this scale is not to be underestimated. Lighting Designer, John Rayment and Sound Designer, Des O’Neill have both done an excellent job. There were a few minor opening night glitches, however – the sound in the lower bleachers was too heavy on bass. The long row of lights that hung diagonally over the stage occasionally shone directly into the eyes of the audience in the front rows, and the glare of the spotlight on Maria when singing from the roof of her apartment at the top of the tower made her difficult to see. (I believe the lighting and sound issues weren’t a problem for people higher up in the bleachers).

Director, Francesca Zambello has created a very fine production that is full of humour, menace and tragedy. While elements of the script and some of the more balletic parts of the choreography may seem dated, the themes of the show still resonate, and Bernstein’s incomparable, soaring score, together with the brilliance of a young Sondheim’s unforgettably clever lyrics, make it a profound and brilliant work.

Event details

Opera Australia presents
West Side Story
book Arthur Laurents | music Leonard Bernstein | lyrics Stephen Sondheim

Director Francesca Zambello

Venue: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour | Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney NSW
Dates: 22 March – 21 April 2024
Tickets: from $79
Bookings: (02) 9318 8200 | www.opera.org.au



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