When Francesca Zambello’s production of West Side Story premiered in 2019, it was the first musical presented by Opera Australia on its outdoor Sydney Harbour stage, and was met with rave reviews. Five years on, it remains the most successful Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production.

It returns now with a new cast led by Nina Korbe as Maria and Billy Bourchier as Tony.

West Side Story

Nina Korbe and Billy Bourchier in West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, 2024. Photo © Keith Saunders

Featuring music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, the 1957 musical pits two teenage street gangs against each other – the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – in a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York.

Brian Thomson’s grungy, graffitied set and Jennifer Irwin’s costumes, vividly lit by John Rayment, create the perfect backdrop for the tragic story.

The Opera Australia Orchestra brings Bernstein’s glorious score to lush life under Musical Director and conductor Guy Simpson, who captures the complex rhythms and intoxicating melodies with thrilling panache. The sound design (revived here by Jake Luther) is also excellent.

Korbe (a proud Koa, Kuku Yalanji, Wakka Wakka woman) is a classically trained soprano and Bourchier is a musical theatre tenor, so their voices don’t always naturally blend. While their chemistry doesn’t exactly sizzle, there are some lovely moments between them and they both find ways to shine.

Korbe captures Maria’s youthful innocence and finds some tender dramatic moments, particularly in Act 2. Her duet with Anita (Kimberley Hodgson), A Boy Like That/I Have a Love, conveys their anguish and you’d be hard pressed not to find the finale moving.

Bourchier exudes a nice boyish quality as Tony, underpinned by soaring vocals; his rendition of Maria is one of the musical highlights.

West Side Story

Nina Korbe as Maria, with fellow cast members in West Side Story, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, 2024. Photo © Keith Saunders

The rest of the cast perform with energy and vitality, but they still need to find more danger, authenticity and raw emotion in their performances to raise the dramatic stakes in order for the storytelling to really hit home.

Not all the dialogue lands convincingly, so we don’t connect as much as we should with the characters, while the song America, performed by Anita and the female Sharks, suffers from some poor diction and doesn’t have the physical attack it needs to make it the showstopper we’ve come to expect.

Overall, however, Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, staged here by Kiira Schmidt Carper, looks fabulous on the wide open stage, where it has plenty of room to breathe and is still exciting to behold.

This may not be the most moving production of West Side Story, but the musical itself is thrilling and the spectacular location and staging make for a memorable event.

West Side Story runs on the outdoor stage at Fleet Steps, Mrs Maquarie’s Point, Sydney until 21 April. More information here.

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