Joan Sutherland Theatre, August 20


Art that causes a stir at birth tends to retain some vestige of that initial shock of the new. When West Side Story, which kills off three of its leads, depicts a rape and includes extra-marital sex, hit Broadway 62 years ago, a steamy musical was one that climaxed in a kiss. Although the subject matter has long ceased to be revolutionary, the creators’ artistic innovations have not.

Despite our familiarity, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and especially Leonard Bernstein’s music still blaze a trail like shooting stars in the musical theatre night sky. Sondheim’s contribution to America and Bernstein’s to A Boy Like That flirt with genius, and Donald Chan’s expert direction of the Opera Australia Orchestra drove home the drama and ingenuity of Bernstein’s incidental and ballet music.

Photos: Jeff Busby.

Bernstein wanted to write an opera, and the combination of his rangy music, Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography and the mandatory acting intensity makes this a challenging show to mount. Director/choreographer Joey McKneely’s revisiting of Robbins’ production places a premium on restoring the Jets and Sharks to being teenagers: kids desperate to feel they belong, rather than the warring crime gangs suggested by older performers.

The downside is that the youthful casting results in some key performers not fully possessing the virtuoso skill-set demanded. Standing out was Chloe Zuel in the show’s best role, the warm, feisty Anita. Zuel is a compelling dancing-acting-singing triple threat, whose only sin was to swallow some words in the masterful A Boy Like That. Sophie Salvesani has an appropriately sweet soprano for Maria, although her acting, while still good, was not quite as luminous as her singing. Daniel Assetta had to step into the role of Tony for a sick Todd Jacobsson, and when he sang Maria you believed in his ardour, but not his top notes. Those, however, were probably down to nerves, because thereafter his pitch was solid (Tonight), and his voice blended exceptionally with Salvesani’s on the underrated One Hand, One Heart.

Lyndon Watts made a convincing Bernardo, Noah Mullins lacked some of Riff’s requisite sense of authority, and the ensemble was studded with talent, especially in the dancing. A highlight of this was the Act 2 nightmare sequence, brilliantly realised against Paul Galli’s set and Peter Halbsgut’s lighting (with Renate Schmitzer’s costumes eye-catching throughout).

Until October 6.