Australian Dance Reviews

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s ‘West Side Story’: The classic story in a whole new light

The Jets in 'West Side Story' on Sydney Harbour. Photo by Keith Saunders.
The Jets in 'West Side Story' on Sydney Harbour. Photo by Keith Saunders.

Sydney Harbour, Sydney.
22 March 2024.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour opened its 2024 season of West Side Story with an impressive bang this month. With the stunning backdrop of the Sydney Harbour and Opera House, on the water and under the stars, was set the perfect scene for this classic but tragic love story. West Side Story explores a modern-day Romeo and Juliet narrative, with the racism driven street gang rivalry of 1950s New York the setting on which the tale is told. 

This production of the well-worn and known musical was fantastic, with a huge, largely raked stage, impressive set pieces and a big crane to frame the space, which set the show up from the beginning to draw in and put the audience right in the middle of the action. Created by Brian Thompson, the set was a large player in the work, and felt larger than life. The atmosphere was palpable, with the outdoor setting adding a layer of magic to the experience.

The overture, which is a big dance number that sets the scene for the tension between the gangs and ensuing story, was excellently executed. Technique was strong, and every part of the movement was extended and performed with finesse. The detail was in place, an execution that would have made original choreographer Jerome Robbins, very proud. It showed promise at the opening for a highly technical work that perhaps would do the choreography justice as it was originally created and intended.  However, for all the wonderful energy the performers brought (and they really did bring it), they did not have the technique and understanding of the choreographic genre, to sustain such wonderful work throughout the show. This was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of a show that shone in every other way.

Technique aside, this cast had such good presence and energy, their chemistry as a team was outstanding, the cohesion of characters for an opening night was rather magical. They burst onto the stage and held their audience captive from start to finish. The cast brought their heart and soul onto the stage, leaving nothing behind. From a character point of view, they landed each moment superbly. It was the best production of West Side Story, from a performance perspective, that we have seen in decades.  A fresh and exciting show for one that has seen thousands of performances all over the world, for more than half a century. 

Billy Bourchier as Tony and Nina Korbe as Maria were strong leads, with wonderful vocals and riveting connection to their role and each other. Kimberley Hodgson in the role of Anita, was a highlight, bringing her own to the role. She oozed energy, with brilliant, versatile and gritty vocals, and excellent comedic timing. Molly Bugeja, reprising her role as Anybodys, has really grown into a mature performer who stands out in her own right, moulding this role into something that has a unique and strong voice. 

Costuming by Jennifer Irwin was simple yet detailed, and colour coded in a subtle way that was not overt, yet strong enough to symbolize the various gangs, without being gaudy. There seems to be some thought given to the socioeconomic state of the setting, keeping the look realistic, which goes a long way to telling an authentic story of the times. Lighting by John Rayment, working in a less than conventional theatrical space, shaped the character of the work as a key player in the performance. The lighting played such a pivotal role in this work, as with such an open space it must be skilfully executed to frame the space, and Rayment did a brilliant job. The live orchestra was hidden under the stage, with live music and sound creating even more layering for a heightened audience experience.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s West Side Story of 2024 was brilliant and should not be missed. It is the perfect setting for this work, a unique chance to view something special. This production of West Side Story is a chance to see this story in a whole new light. Bravo to all involved!

By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.

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