Reviews/Musical Theatre

Is it time to retire West Side Story?

9 July 2021

Despite strong performances, Opera Australia’s staging of West Side Story should come with a content note, writes Claire Coleman.

West Side Story, Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment ·
Crown Theatre Perth, 7 July 2021 ·

Content note: This review discusses staged portrayals of sexual violence and racial stereotyping, and parodies of mental and physical disabilities.

^^ See how easy that was? Since I included a content note here, everybody knows what they’re in for and can choose whether or not they want to proceed.

Opera Australia’s production of West Side Story comes with no such warning. Some might argue that audiences already know what to expect when classic productions are restaged, and viewers hoping for authenticity to the 1957 source material will leave satisfied. 

West Side Story is a classic for a reason. Director Joey McKneely’s presentation of Jerome Robbins’s choreography effectively recreates the original’s groundbreaking ability to convey character, action and mood. It is well executed by the cast, particularly by the Jets dancers. 

Leonard Bernstein’s score dazzles in a rich performance from the production’s Perth orchestra, led with aplomb by musical director Isaac Hayward. West Side Story’s lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and narrative by Arthur Laurents are themselves reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

I’m left wondering, though, whether the weighty legacies of such musical and theatrical giants are too much to bear in 2021. It feels like Opera Australia’s production choices exacerbate West Side Story’s inbuilt issues, hence my longing for a content note.

The reductive racial stereotyping inherent in portraying the story’s rival gangs – first generation Polish immigrant Jets vs newly arrived Puerto Rican Sharks – is hard-wired into the script. At least nobody in Wednesday night’s casting appeared to be performing in brownface, as was the case in the 1961 film adaptation when even Puerto Rican actor Rita Moreno was made to darken her skin to play Anita. Nevertheless, the show’s “Latin” dancing, music, speech and mannerisms come to the story filtered through the lenses of its creators – four white men with unavoidably limited understandings of cultures that are not their own. 

When this material is recreated by a predominantly non-Hispanic creative team and cast, it still amounts to the symbolic and semiotic equivalent of brownface, even without the skin darkening cosmetics. Minor accent inconsistencies in the Sharks, particularly noticeable as discrepancies between speech and singing, did not lend the realism needed to claim authenticity. 

A single male cast member stands in the centre of the stage his arms outstretched; on either side are two groups of male performers. All are casually dressed in jeans, shorts and singlets. Several women watch from scaffold-like balconies.
The cast of ‘West Side Story’ made good use of the stage scaffolding at Crown Theatre. Photo: Will Russell

Similarly, the reduction of police brutality to caricature in scenes with crooked cop figures Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke are uncomfortable to watch. The supposedly comedic but ultimately unfunny number “Gee Officer Krupke!” calls on the cast of Jets to blame their delinquency on addiction and trauma in the childhood home. Sondheim’s lyrics see the Jets parody themselves as “depraved”, “psychologically disturbed” and “sociologically sick” in order to gain clemency from a judge. Gross.

Rather than attempting to minimise the cringe factor present here, the choreography gleefully takes it further. The cast are called upon to parody disability and mock going to therapy. At one point amid this cascade of offence, a performer towards the rear of the group mimes an extended and absurd masturbation; it’s not clear why. It is not reasonable to expect a 2021 audience to revel in such a harmful celebration of political incorrectness.

This, too, is the concern with the way Anita’s rape at the hands of the Jets is handled. Elsewhere, this scene is sometimes called an “attempted sexual assault”, which is how it is often portrayed.

Not so here. It is clear from the lighting, blocking, and Anita’s bow-legged stagger away from the men at the scene’s end that the audience is witness to a gang rape. It is brutal viewing.

I’m not of the opinion that art should never deal with heavy content; the world can be a dark place, and part of the work of art is to hold some of that darkness up to the light. But the staging of this scene is distasteful. 

Art that wants to portray trauma must show care and compassion for victims, not voyeuristically magnify their pain. This is especially so when the trauma is perpetuated by white men against non-white women, whose bodies have so frequently been violated for viewers’ pleasure.

Some will find this review too woke, and it’s true that I have focused on issues in West Side Story itself to the detriment of a full discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of this performance. 

Nigel Huckle’s Tony and Angelina Thomson’s Anita were stand-outs from a strong line-up of leads. Sophie Salvesani played the ingenue Maria well, but her vocal tone occasionally felt too operatic for musical theatre, culminating in an inappropriately aria-like delivery of “I Have A Love”. 

The minimalist scaffolding that comprises Paul Gallis’s set is put to good use, conveying a wide range of places and states of mind with just a few extra props and well-designed lighting shifts. There were some technical issues in the sound design; the gunshot at the climax of Act II was so obnoxiously loud and sudden that the audience’s instinctive response was to laugh. Naturally, the giggling of the crowd robbed Tony’s death of much of its pathos. 

Opera Australia’s take on West Side Story features strong performances by its cast, crew and orchestra, but these were not enough to overcome out-of-touch production choices, and I left the theatre feeling like I needed a shower.

West Side Story continues until 17 July.

Pictured top: The Jets and the Sharks face off in a scene from Opera Australia’s ‘West Side Story‘. Photo: Will Russell

This review was updated 10 July 2021 to change the term Latinx to Hispanic in line with the terminology preferred by Latin-American people.

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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