Opera Australia brings its second West Side Story of the year to Sydney. This time by Tony Award-nominated choreographer Joey McKneely. The bling was all hanging out on opening night: a pulsating mass of paparazzi, social media influencers before a sea of flash bulbs, fancy rope cordons...all reminders that musicals are, increasingly, becoming income and publicity boosters for classical opera companies.

<i>West Side Story</i> © Jeff Busby
West Side Story
© Jeff Busby

But it wasn’t just the buzz (and being indoors) that made the production different from March’s open-air harbour spectacle by Francesca Zambello. Her sophisticated production was laced with urgent parallels to the world’s current migrant crises. McKneely’s, though, is a safe, traditional West Side Story that knows it’s been mainstream famous for a long time and has forgotten the need to dig deeper. Whilst other musicals might be more forgiving of this approach (maybe something like Les Misérables or The Sound of Music), West Side Story was never meant to play it safe. It was created dark and urgent, in its story and musical risks – so much so that the original production was rejected by multiple producers. Glibness on this point means that the production suffers. Too much glitter, not enough grit.

Todd Jacobsson (Tony) and Sophie Salvesani (Maria) © Jeff Busby
Todd Jacobsson (Tony) and Sophie Salvesani (Maria)
© Jeff Busby

McKneely has chosen a young cast, emphasising the youth of the warring Jets and Sharks. This all makes the production zip with youthful energy. The eagerness is offset, though, by an emotional two-dimensionality. I couldn’t tell if this was because of a focus on youthful appeal over artistic maturity, or a consequence of the play-it-safe direction. But overall I was never truly transported to 1950s New York City. Instead, I felt like I was in a theatre meant to be having an experience of a famous musical – with stage-ready gestures just where you'd expect them. This was probably why the caricatured Gee, Officer Krupke was one of the strongest numbers. The emotional lightness wasn’t helped by the scaffold set, which seemed ill-fitted to the stage and penned the cast in, and strangely-coloured gaudy costumes.

West Side Story is one of the most heavily (and inspiringly) choreographed musicals, and McKneely was trained in the original choreography by the man himself, the great Jerome Robbins. So I was surprised to find the dancing a bit sub-par. The cast have fantastic fitness and unity, but there's not enough sharp attack and technical precision to make Robbins's choreography as slick as a Jets switchblade.

<i>West Side Story</i> © Jeff Busby
West Side Story
© Jeff Busby

What the production did have were likeable young leads. Sophie Salvesani was a warm and sympathetic Maria. Daniel Assetta was also enjoyable as the leading man. His Tony was zealous, switched on, and itching to move forward in life, a refreshing change from the usual dreamy Tony (the legacy – or hangover, depending on your taste – of Richard Beymer in the 1961 cinema classic). I would have liked more tonal control from both leads, but they had great vocal and acting chemistry, all the more impressive since Assetta was substituting for a sick Todd Jacobsson on opening night. Chloé Zuel was a vocal powerhouse as Anita. She lacks the dance ability to truly pull off Anita’s moves, but her vocal belt at full throttle ate up the entire stage. Noah Mullins was an earnest, boyish Riff, reminding us that at the end of the day, those Jets really are "kids".

The genius of the original material, the Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein magic, meant I had a nice enough time. This isn't for you if you're after something gripping and fresh, but for a tried-and-true sort of musical theatre experience, this West Side Story will probably do the job.


***11