Going gangbusters: Kimberley Hodgson in ‘West Side Story’

Kimberley Hodgson as Anita and Emma Feliciano as Consuelo in 'West Side Story'. Photo by Keith Saunders.
Kimberley Hodgson as Anita and Emma Feliciano as Consuelo in 'West Side Story'. Photo by Keith Saunders.

West Side Story? Harbourside story? How about both?

From mid-March, the now annual Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour will once again bring the theatre outdoors, as well as adding a few fireworks, and backlighting it all with a glittering city skyline.

For sheer spectacle, the 2024 iteration of Opera Australia’s autumnal excursion will be hard to top. Classic show, dazzling setting, etcetera. Indeed, its 2019 production of West Side Story remains its most successful harbourside outing to date.

Kimberley Hodgson.
Kimberley Hodgson.

Yet, when we dive into the details, staging a full scale Broadway show on a raked, outdoor stage is no simple matter. And it’s not just the tech crew who will be going the extra mile. Australian actor Kimberley Hodgson, who will play the pivotal role of Anita, has been working hard to ensure that she is ready to deal with the various elements.

Speaking to Dance Informa after a full day of rehearsals, she says, “Being outside, at war with nature at times, is pretty challenging on top of already doing a show. I mean, it’s so incredibly scenic when it’s raining and we’re doing the numbers. It actually looks like a movie, it’s so beautiful. And quite liberating as well. But it is difficult.”

Aside from the perils of rain and wind, there is the heavily raked stage. What this requires, apart from knowing your cues and being present, is an increased level of fitness. As Hodgson duly explains, “What you can do to cope…is a lot of weight training, a lot of strength training, a lot of anaerobic cardio. So, getting ready to go up and downhill whilst singing. I have been focusing my training on that to ensure that I am capable at least to be in control of the things I can control.”

Dancers are used to the physical requirements of their art, but for the more theatre-focused Hodgson, the step-up is noteworthy. “There are so many athletic elements in the show, and the consequence of the raked stage is that it forces you to train to that level, so you can still sing and act and look like it’s easy.”

'West Side Story' rehearsals. Photo by Prudence Upton.
‘West Side Story’ rehearsals. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Having done the show five years ago, she is able to compare the physical impact. Now, in her early 30s, the difference is palpable. “Five years on for a performer’s body is a long time,” she notes, “especially if you’ve been working consistently. It is a real challenge for the body. This role is the most physically challenged I have probably ever been in my career so far.”

This is no small admission. Hodgson is already a seasoned veteran of the music theatre stage, having recently starred as Gigi in Miss Saigon. She has also played the lead in Mary Poppins, appeared in the debut run of the Australian production Fangirls, and been nominated Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Emerging Artist at the 2015 Matilda Awards for her role as Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods.

In addition to the fitness requirements of West Side Story being a (raked) step up, the show’s themes of ethnic and implied sexual violence are similarly fraught. Jets versus Sharks could be a proxy war for any of the numerous ethno-nationalist conflicts that bedevil us. Indeed, pretty lights and classic songs notwithstanding, it is hard to distance the metaphor from the bloodier truth.

For the show’s creatives, this implies a delicate diplomacy. “Even without really speaking about it, there is a layer of knowing from both the audience and the cast because it’s our lived experience,” Hodgson acknowledges. “We see it on the news, on social media, we see it everywhere. Intuitively, we are already making these connections, without it being forced upon us. Maybe this is why theatre has the capability of being as incredible as it is, because it just speaks through story.”

Kimberley Hodgson as Anita and The Sharks in 'West Side Story'. Photo by Keith Saunders.
Kimberley Hodgson as Anita and The Sharks in ‘West Side Story’. Photo by Keith Saunders.

Closer to home, Hodgson’s role as Anita (the Puerto Rican seamstress who lives at the centre of the ensuing conflict) has its own troublesome terrain. Drilling down, she speaks with great honesty about a character whose personal and ethical dilemmas are complex and loaded.   

“For me as an actor, it is hard to bear the emotional toll of this voice because I’m obviously going to be doing this a number of times [six] a week, and from a sustainable point of view, it is hard to carry that load,” she admits. “But, on a technical level, although we are honouring the story, just being in the scenes and moving from action to action is, I think, the safest and clearest way to tell the story, and to allow for the rest of it to just, you know, happen.”

Teasing out this last thread, her contention is that West Side Story does not require conscious ‘modernising’, either from a storytelling or production perspective. Indeed, she argues that simply moving the show outdoors and running it on an over-water stage with nightly fireworks and a shimmering city backdrop is all the refreshing it needs.

“The thing about Opera on the Harbour, with its scenic design and everything, is that it brings a whole new dimension. I think that in itself is a huge and wonderful revamp for a show that shouldn’t really be touched.”

Will the weather gods concur? There’s only one way to find out.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s West Side Story runs through 21 April. For tickets and more information, head to www.sydneyoperahouse.com/opera-australia/2024-season/handa-opera-on-sydney-harbour-west-side-story.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

To Top