The current touring production of West Side Story, showing at Melbourne’s luxurious Regent Theatre, comes to us from the 2009 Broadway revival. Importantly, in New York it marked the first revival of this grand daddy of musical theatre in nearly 30 years.
Two things were very clear from the outset in this version of West Side Story: firstly the cast is young (too young in my opinion) and secondly, this revival certainly isn’t a replica of the 1957 original.
Musical revivals often create divided opinions among theatre folk. There are those who prefer a revival that mirrors the original version as closely as possible some years later, and then there are those who consider this an inane experience and prefer changes and alterations to help celebrate its revival and make the experience different.
I was not a huge fan of West Side Story last night. For me, this West Side Story lacked character and charm. West Side Story without a soul is a very sad tale, indeed. Flawed, it definitely was, partially saved only by the outstanding choreography from start to finish.
If ever there was a show in musical theatre where the triple threat was vital to the it’s success, then West Side Story has to be it. This version hits the nail on the head with the choreography, but sadly misses the target with the acting and singing.
Most of the music lacked the necessary punch, with the cast instead choosing to cruise through many of the numbers with lacklustre ease. Anita (Alinta Chidzey) and Rosalia’s (Jenna Baxter) rendition of “America” was strangely subdued, while Tony (Josh Piterman) and Maria (Julie Goodwin) annoyingly broke into operatic vibrato part-way through several of their songs. Beautiful voices they were, but it left one feeling they were watching an Opera Australia production of West Side Story, instead. As funny as “Gee, Officer Krupke” actually is, Houston we have a problem when this is the standout number in the show and not “Maria” or “Somewhere”. From a technical perspective, the volume of sound varied and wavered between dialogue and song, character to character and from song to song. Ten rows from the front in the stalls, I couldn’t hear some of lyrics in a number of songs. Thank God I wasn’t up the back of the dress circle.
On the whole, the acting was passable. But in a musical with so much dialogue, principal roles with richer characters should have been on the menu. Alinta Chidzey was the pick of the bunch as an entertaining Anita, but unfortunately Josh Piterman and Julie Goodwin failed to engage most of the audience as Tony and Maria, and West Side is their love story. Turango Merito played a very wooden Chino and his pivotal moment informing Maria of her brother’s death was so hammed up and melodramatic, it was farcical, almost cringe-worthy. There are dozens of lines of comic dialogue and lyrics in West Side Story, but most of them were lost, including all the wonderful humour in “America”.
Costume choices were interesting, to say the least. Bright purples and pinks abound in a more contemporary feel. But these costumes seemed to be lost somewhere between the original West Side Story and today, as the last time I saw men in full pastel suits was circa 1987 in an episode of Miami Vice. Unfortunately, there was no rhyme or reason in much of the costuming.
Why, oh why, do we get a projection screen at the rear of the stage with a huge black curtain in a show we paid $120 a ticket for? Was this a high school musical I slipped into last night? Lame set design of this nature is unacceptable when your ticket price is on par with the $16 million Mary Poppins down the road. This West Side Story certainly didn’t seem to have production values matching its $14 million Broadway cousin. The Regent Theatre stage was simply too big for much of this show, leaving huge empty spaces centre stage between the two tall tenement housing set pieces either side. This resulted in Tony singing “Maria” so removed from the set to his left and right, and with no set in the background. Many scenes were so sparsely set, the illusion of theatre was lost, altogether.
The cast of this West Side Story was unashamedly young. While every theatre practitioner and critic applauds a brave young cast tackling the toughest of stage musicals, there comes a point where this sort of gamble can leave the whole show exposed. It’s nice to see a change from the seasoned professionals (some of them are currently in Mary Poppins, methinks), but when the youth one sees on stage reveals a lack of experience in two of the three departments necessary to make this show a success, they can smile all night, but it won’t change the disappointment.
If you’ve never seen a professional version of West Side Story before, you’ll probably love this show, as many of the teenagers in the audience certainly did. It appeals to a younger, less discerning demographic who have little to compare it to. This is West Side Story for the YouTube generation, on and off the stage. Miley Cyrus would have loved it. I didn’t.