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West Side’s eternal messages more relevant than ever

Hayden Fritzlaff 30 September 2019
West Side Story's Jets take to the air.

Opera Australia’s production of West Side Story arrives at the Canberra Theatre this October. Photo: Supplied.

It’s the musical that needs no introduction, a mid-20th century love story, inspired by Romeo that Juliet and taking place in the blue-collar Upper West Side streets of New York City.

The Jets, The Sharks, the balcony scene, Leonard Bernstein’s score, it’s all here. Even if you’ve never sat down and seen the show from start to finish, it’s safe to say that some elements from it has made its way into your life.

Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment have brought the whole, iconic show to life once again. After stunning audiences at the Sydney Opera House, West Side Story is ready to make its way to Canberra.

“Our director Joey McKneely made sure it was identical to the original Broadway production,” says Keanu Gonzalez who’s set to play Bernardo, leader of a gang of Peurto Rican Americans known as The Sharks.

What with the show tackling themes like troubled youth, racism, and bigotry, I ask Gonzalez how he feels this particular incarnation maps onto current society. With communities around the globe feeling these stresses more than ever, I thought that a little bit of 2019 might have seeped into the show.

“Well, you’d think in a modern-day situation, those ideas wouldn’t apply. The sad truth is it’s still relevant today. The show is the exact same as it was in 1957. Everyone knows it’s an old show. If someone thinks it’s a new show, they’d look at it and they’d compare it to modern-day society. We still compare this show to modern-day society when we should have moved past the things it’s talking about.”

Keanu Gonzalez and Noah Mullins.

Keanu Gonzalez and Noah Mullins play Bernardo and Riff respectively. Photo: Supplied.

It’s a fascinating point, that keeping the show as close to its original form as possible could actually make it feel more prescient than if the setting were altered to fit the 21st Century. And what’s more, the show puts forward such a masterful balance of choreography, music and narrative, that it feels almost sacrilegious to mess with it.

“I think in my personal opinion, what people love when they see the show is the feeling. They want to feel something. With West Side Story, what you feel its nothing like any other show in the world.

“The characters go through heavy character arcs, there’s ups and downs. They’re anxious, they cry, there’s pain. Everyone recognises and thinks about how great the show was, but it can be hard to talk about the pain and the racism.”

The Jets and Sharks face off.

The Jets and The Sharks face off in the iconic musical, West Side Story. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The weight of the show isn’t lost on Noah Mullins either. He plays Riff, Bernardo’s arch rival and leader of The Jets.

“I was about to go to bed when I got the call to be in the show,” he says. “My agent called me and he just said, ‘you’re Riff’. I’m very young to be playing a lead character like that. It’s really surreal. People spend their entire lives going through different parts of theatre to be part of a show like this.”

And it’s true that lead roles in such a beloved musical are highly sought-after within the industry. The combination of the daring, groundbreaking-for-the-time choreography, and the emotional, immediately recognisable score from Leonard Bernstein, all tied in with a decades-long history and roots that extend back to Shakespeare … well, suffice it to say, getting the call up to do West Side Story is kind of a big deal.

“Always, even when I was little, I’d watch Riff and the song ‘Cool’. It’s such a good song. West Side was one of the first shows that melded classical music and musical theatre music. Same with ballet and men dancing.

“It’s so much fun to perform. Our cast is like a family. We travel all around the world. Having to learn the show really quickly, and travelling in a country where no one speaks the language, it really brings you together as a cast.”

Catch West Side Story at the Canberra Theatre From October 10 – 27. Tickets from $89.90 – $159.90 + bf via canberratheatrecentre.com.au


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