The Production Company was formed in Melbourne in 1999 by Jeanne Pratt AC. Still supported by individual and business sponsors, they present three short-run musicals a year with the ongoing goal to “provide professional opportunities for local artists and to entertain Melbourne audiences with the best shows from Broadway and beyond”. They usually sell out the State Theatre and chose to celebrate their 50th production with the show that changed how Broadway, and beyond, saw and made music theatre: West Side Story.
It’s hard to imagine just how mind blowing West Side Story was when it opened on Broadway in 1957. An opening-night critic from the New York Herald Tribune said: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” Here was a story about teenagers, gangs, back streets, sex, racism and violence. Its music was influenced by opera and its dance by ballet but it felt and looked like the streets it was set on. This was Broadway without grinning showgirls and high kicks. This was romance without a happy ending. This was a story about New York and about the real anger, pain and love that wasn’t far from the comfy seats and flashing cameras of the opening night.
And it was created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Burnstein and Stephen Sondheim: artists who had no idea how loved they were to become.
This production is as close to that 1957 production as we can get, being based on Robbins’s original direction and choreography that was re-created by Gale Edwards and Michael Ralph. Thanks to the 1961 film, its familiarity – I almost expected the audience to finger click along – is immediately welcomed and loved and it was pretty amazing to see just how wonderful the school dance scene looked like on a stage.
The cast ooze their love for this show. They know how important this piece is; most of them would have been singing and dancing along to the film for as long as they could remember. Even if their accents are a bit dodgy, they are all stunning and their dancing is an tribute to Robbins.
The vocal highlight is Anna O’Byrne’s astonishing singing of Maria. On opening night, laryngitis left Deone Zanotto playing Anita karoke style with Amanda Harrison singing and Natalie Gilhome, the assistant director, providing the dialogue off stage. The theatre is big enough for most people to not really notice, but it does question why there weren’t covers in the ensemble.
In all, the show was kind of like being there in 1957, except it’s no longer mind-blowingly new. Even Tim Chappel’s costumes, which capture the 50s and hint at the decades since with super-bright colour and nods to trends like acid wash jeans and ra-ra skirts, don’t bring it out of its time.
The expectations, familiarity and determination to be ‘that’ West Side Story takes away its edge and doesn’t let it find its own voice.
It’s a story of racism and anger about immigration in a big city where young people are unemployed and first generation immigrants despise the next generation of immigrants because of where they came from. It could be our story. But it’s not. While in 1950s and 60s it was a story of the city and world its creators lived in, this one is a piece of history.
Which is exactly what this company aim to do. And they do it well. Sold out theatres really don’t care if anyone disagrees. I loved seeing it, but I’d love to see the next Australian telling of the extraordinary West Side Story as a show about us and now (like Barrie Kosky re-told the piece as Berlin’s story at Komische Oper Berlin). I want to see one that blows our minds all over again.