West Side Story Review

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.

4 Responses

  1. lisa says:

    Thanks for your review, the only one I can find with any sort of constructive criticism. Every other reveiw is gushingly glowing! I saw the show last night and while overall I really enjoyed it, I have to agree that the main couple lacked charisma, were at times too operetic and that the stage looked empty! I believe the cast handled the energetic dancing and singing well, though. Perhaps they got a handle on it by the time they arrived in Adelaide. The musicians and conductor in the small orchestra were very very good and really helped to hold it all together!

    I’ve not seen any other productions of WSS so cannot compare but have seen enough musicals to feel this was not in the top class. I also found the ‘dream’ scene rather flat and out of place – will check out the original version to see what was done there.

    Thanks again for the review.

  2. Sheree McKenna says:

    I saw WSS yesterday afternoon and agree with your review. While the cast had lovely singing voices and could definitely dance it was lack lustre. Tony and Maria came across as bit players (Jenna Baxter played Maria) when they are the focus of the story. The costumes for the most part looked cheap and tacky, denim or any sort of mini skirts were not fashionable in the 50’s so I am lost to understand what they were thinking there. Even Anita and her friends dresses were less than spectacular, scarf hemlines were also non existent. The ticket prices warranted a lot more attention to detail, in staging, costumes and while those kids are great talents with the exception of Alinta they lacked the dramatic talent to pull it together. The “Somewhere” seen with them dressed in white came across as a filler, perhaps I’m just into the symbolism.

  3. Ella says:

    I totally agree with you Cashy about this latest version of West Side Story. I saw West Side Story in 1994 at The Princess Theatre in Melbourne and absolutely loved it, it had passion which is what this latest version lacks. Marina Pryor made a very beautiful Maria and you really believed her character unlike Julie Goodwin who has a lovely voice but did not make a convincing Maria. I bought tickets for my partner who had never seen West Side Story and we were both disappointed. We found it a bit so so.

  4. Borbs says:

    Love your work Cashy! Shame you didn’t like it though … sorry to get your hopes up, maybe I should have kept my trap shut 🙂

    I totally agree with you on the production value of the staging … not impressive. I agree that the overuse of the vibrato was unnecessary – though it didn’t detract from the clarity and the warmth of tone enough for me to react as strongly, but I can see how it could annoy.

    I’m not sure if I agree with the ‘too young’ call though. The leads were in their mid to late 20s … wasn’t Juliet 13 when she met Romeo? The naivety and innocence of Maria’s character is clear in the dialogue. It would seem ridiculous for a 30 or 40 something Maria to be hastened in from the balcony by her ‘papa’ or to see a 40 year old gang of ‘teenage’ hoodlums rumbling at the playground 🙂

    I don’t think it’s easy to equate age with ability … Verity Hunt-Ballard is of a similar age as the cast of WSS, and yet her role could easily have been played by a woman well into her 30s or 40s – but obviously she was deemed the best woman for the role, despite having done … not much at all in professional theatre. For all her credentials, I was not convinced that the close to 50 year old Caroline O’Connor (who did Fosse like my grandmother does the Pasodoble) was the best choice (even if she was the most obvious choice) for Velma in the 2009 revival of Chicago.

    As for the singing, I think it’s a bit harsh to expect five barrel turns, a flick kick, jazz drag, a punch, knee slide, and … now HIT that high Ab above C boys! Yes, true, it could have been better, and those kids on Broadway sure nailed it, but I’m not sure it’s fair to suggest that ‘experienced’ Todd McKenney or Marina Prior (who in MP was truly ‘serviceable’) would not have struggled to get that volume up and by golly E-LO-CUTE!

    I didn’t mind the costuming. I’m not easily offended by pink pastel 🙂 I’m still with Miley on this one!

    Thanks Cashy for the thought provoking review though!

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