REVIEW: West Side Story | WAAPA 3rd Year Music Theatre

Originally reviewed on 14.6.14

Unpublished by AussieTheatre.com for reasons unknown

West Side Story is probably my most favourite musical of all five of the musicals that I actually like. I grew up listening to a recording of Bernstein conducting his own West Side Story Symphonic Dances, and I have always marveled at the complexity of the feverish and heavenly melodies he wrote. The score never gets old, and I always sing along, even if it means doing so quietly enough not to disturb those around me if I happen to be sitting in a concert hall listening to it live.

I would be just as happy if West Side Story were a ballet and not a musical, though that might seem like a snub to our cherished lyricist Stephen Sondheim, or to Arthur Laurents’s quite poetic book. To me the score tells a complete story on its own; Bernstein takes us on an incredibly textured, rhythmic and evocative journey. That being said, Sondheim and Laurents created something beautiful with Bernstein that has stood the test of time and probably will continue to do so for as long as young, tempestuous kids keep loving and fighting each other. Look how long the source material has stuck in our consciousness — in Perth alone, there have been no less than four Romeo and Juliet adaptations performed in the last six months with yet another one on the way in a couple of months.

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty of this particular WAAPA production of West Side Story. First off, the choreography by Lisa O’Dea is high-energy, clean, precise and immensely fun to watch. There’s not a weak dancer in the bunch and this is a big bunch, with roughly twenty performers in each camp of Jets and Sharks. And whoever has choreographed the stagehands (presumably stage manager Lachlan Martin) to move those enormous towering trucks (designed by Steve Nolan) without anyone’s feet, hands or head getting squashed in between deserves special recognition. Mark Howett’s lighting design adds depth, texture and mood, with all the light trees exposed to the audience on either side of the stage, adding to the show’s urban feel. The timing of all the movement on stage, whether it be set, light, or body movement, is swift and exciting. When everything comes together with the colourful, meticulously detailed  and uniquely anachronistic costumes by Rhiannon Walker, you’d be hard-pressed to find many professional music theatre productions in Perth and beyond to match it in terms of production design and choreography.

There are some truly wonderful young performers in this production. Sophie Cheeseman as Velma, the lead Jets girl, is top-notch, with beautiful control, confidence and presence. Stephen Madsen also stood out as Action, giving us a rousing rendition of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which was by far the show’s best group number and certainly the crowd’s favourite. Suzie Melloy as Anita is fiery, sexy and funny; your eyes are naturally drawn to her when she’s on scene, and she brings a lot of sizzling energy. Max Bimbi and Ben Adams are sharp and snappy as A-Rab and Baby John, respectively. Lyndon Watts is very strong as Bernardo, and sweet and petite Miranda Macpherson is quite suited to the role of Maria. But it’s the un-self-conscious, effortless gentleness of William Groucutt as Tony that steals the show for me with his breathtaking rendition of “Maria.” Tony’s big moments come early on in the piece, and he’s not dealt with much in the second half of the show, but no matter, because Groucutt makes a lasting impression.

I would have enjoyed a little more chemistry between the two leads, which might have been bolstered by them being allowed to just sing to each other in the balcony scene, rather than having to climb up and down the jungle gym of a rotating balcony truck. The ladies’ diction using Puerto Rican accents in “America” was a little troublesome, which meant that some of Sondheim’s funniest jabs were lost. Director Crispin Taylor does not gloss over some of the story’s darker aspects, including the harrowing scene when Anita comes to Doc’s to deliver a message to Tony. But as we approach the final scene, things become very sombre, heartbreaking and poignant. The continued relevance of this scene still haunts, as we continue to see teenagers gunned down almost daily in America.

This is an entertaining, high-energy and colourful production that had me dancing in my seat.

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