"Tonight, tonight, the world is wild and bright," sing Tony and Maria, holding each other rapturously as they gaze from Maria’s balcony onto the balmy evening below. But this wasn’t just any old set. The night sky was real, the city skyline glimmering across the water was real, and (as the poncho-clad audience attested) the rain-swollen breeze was real.

Alexander Lewis (Tony)
© Prudence Upton

We were, of course, at the annual outdoor Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, famous for its large-scale waterfront spectacle. This is the first time HOSH has been a musical, and the choice is inspired. West Side Story, with its famous depiction of New York City in the fifties, feels spectacularly gritty when swathed in real-life cityscape.

The giant outdoor stage (designed by Brian Thomson) is atmospheric in its own right. This West Side is down-lit by cold street lamps (John Rayment’s lighting design), littered with subway cars (helpfully graffitied with characters’ names and a picture of a shark and a jet, just in case we’d misplaced our programs), a drugstore, a bridal shop, an apartment fire escape, and a moving police car complete with sirens. All this under the brooding shadow of a long freeway overpass, sealing the characters in a grimy claustrophobia and reminding us that we were about to witness an exploding crucible of young love and violence.

The Jets
© Prudence Upton

Director Francesca Zambello has opted for a respectful, uncomplicated interpretation. If New York Daily News critic John Chapman described the 1957 original as a “Manhattan juke-box opera”, Zambello has refreshed the juke-box casing but left the internal mechanics largely untouched. On the centenary of the births of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, she has spoken of deciding to allow HOSH audiences to experience the extraordinary Bernstein–Robbins collaboration unhindered. There is no need to elaborate on what many commentators have said across the decades: that Robbins’ choreography and Bernstein’s music make a remarkable combination. Zambello knew what she was doing in deferring to that original synergy.

The HOSH cast and musicians do it justice. The choreography (mounted by Julio Monge) is danced with the confidence, sharpness, and high-energy attack that makes Robbins so memorable. This visual delight was enhanced by Jennifer Irwin’s striking block colour costumes – blue and grey denims for the Jets, and hot-blooded hues for the Sharks. And under Guy Simpson’s baton, the orchestra made that delicious Bernstein orchestration come alive with energetic freshness.

Alexander Lewis (Tony) and Julie Lea Goodwin (Maria)
© Keith Saunders

As expected for a big-budget HOSH production, the leads delivered the goods. Julie Lea Goodwin as Maria was the evening's evident star, to the point where the duet Somewhere seemed to become her feature song. I wasn’t complaining though. Her voice was beautifully youthful, with a golden shimmer in the upper registers, and her Maria radiated innocent passion. It was easy to see why Tony was immediately smitten with her. Alexander Lewis gave a solid performance in that role, winning the audience early on with his endearingly warm Something’s Coming.

Karli Dinardo as Anita was my favourite, a wonderful dancer and a scene-stealing actress capable of bridging (as the role requires) comic sass and nuanced tragedy, and sings in a voice of richly dark sincerity. I found her Act 2 duets with Maria, A Boy Like That and I Have a Love, the most gripping scenes of the entire night. Special mention also goes to Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva’s magnetically-danced Bernardo, and Mark Hill’s commanding Riff.

Julie Lea Goodwin (Maria) and Karli Dinardo (Anita)
© Prudence Upton

2019 is a year where West Side Story seems to be everywhere. Following this HOSH production, Opera Australia will mount Joey McKneely’s version in the Sydney Opera House in August. And then there is the upcoming Stephen Spielberg movie for which Monge is a collaborator. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As the “GO HOME” graffiti on Maria’s apartment makes clear, and with Sydney audiences still reeling in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, West Side Story’s focus on migrant and racial tensions hits close to home. Zambello unflinchingly plants her stake in the program note, where she writes that she approached this production thinking of Bernstein's "out and out plea for racial tolerance", hoping that "in 2019, in the midst of a world refugee crisis... we can make that plea reverberate in a new way.” It is surprising she has done so through such deferential staging, but perhaps the fact that West Side Story's themes resonate in spite of this is why it is such a classic. Its subsequent fame makes it easy to forget that when it premiered (after being rejected by multiple producers for being too dark and depressing) West Side Story was deeply and uncomfortably topical. It is a tribute to Robbins' vision that it remains so over half a century later. And if we’re going to engage in a stream of West Side Story productions, what better place to start than with Zambello's fulsome harbourside celebration.