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West Side Story - Handa Opera (NSW)

Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Original Production Concept and Choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Reviewed by Claira Prider

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point

22 March - 21 April, 2024

Beautiful singing and stunning dance numbers; West Side Story is an unmissable night of theatrical spectacle that aims to reverberate in a new way with today's audiences

Inspired by William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story brings the young lovers from feuding families into 1950s America. Originally written for a Catholic boy and Jewish immigrant girl on the lower east side, the rise in youth gang violence at the time inspired the story be moved to uptown Manhattan where a New Yorker falls in love with a Puerto Rican immigrant. Created by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (production concept and choreographer) West Side Story stands as one of the greatest musicals of all time. Being groundbreaking for its frank engagement with current social and political issues, the work is also renowned for being one of the first to seamlessly integrate script, song, dance and set. Five years on from its original outdoor staging, director Francesca Zambello’s production of West Side Story returns to Sydney Harbour with a new cast led by Nina Korbe and Billy Bourchier.

As I walk down the red carpeted hill into Mrs McMahons Point the setting sun illuminates the harbour, silhouetting the opera house sails from behind. A 30-metre-long metal overhead structure stands 15 metres above the enormous stage which is more than double the size of any indoor Australian theatre stage. Requiring 65 kilometres of data and audio cables to power, the production involves 600 lighting fixtures, 223 speakers and a floating stage that required two cranes to lower it onto pylons in the water. Below the stage is the underworld (space between the stage and the water) where the 28-piece orchestra perform from. While the sun goes down and the lights come up, the whole venue is buzzing with excitement as 3000 stadium seats begin to fill.  

Photos by Keith Saunders

On the asphalt designed steeply raked stage stand three run-down, decommissioned train carriages and a heavily graffitied red bricked apartment building structure. Fallen roadworks signage and steaming manholes pepper the faded basketball court markings in this grungy, industrial New York setting. Brian Thomson’s set design incorporates Sydney's high-rise buildings to continue into the Manhattan city skyline where the large metal structure presents an underpass reflective of an inverted Sydney Harbour Bridge. John Rayment’s lighting reinforces the industrial feel of the production with direct, intense spots, and red and blue hues. A highlight of the lighting design for me comes where the gigantic mirrored disco ball hanging from one of the cranes slowly swings around to the centre of the stage covering the performers and audience with shimmering flickers of light. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes make use of solid bright colours which translate well in the super-sized setting. Kiira Schmidt Carper's revival choreography combines ballet and fight sequences and facilitates dazzling colourful formations whilst staying faithful to Robbins' concept.

Presenting a musical in an outdoor setting of this magnitude brings a whole new industrial element to the art of live performance. The vastness of the stage facilitates opportunities for great visual spectacle but at a cost to the human elements of the production. While many exceptional, individual performances are delivered, as a cohort the ensemble lacks unity. When different gangs perform, both are missing a cohesive togetherness from within. This disconnected feeling was present for much of the production which I think is driven by how widely spaced the staging is.

2024 Melba Opera Scholar and proud Koa, Kuku Yalanji Wakka Wakka woman, Nina Korbe performs the role of the young, love-struck, endearing Maria. Her full-bodied, rich timbre grounds the innocence she brings to the role. Billy Bouchier gives an impassioned performance as the romantic and charming Tony. His bright, resonant tenor tone and youthful, earnest portrayal makes for a sensitive and engaging performance. While together Bouchier and Korbe create some lovely moments, the duets between them don’t present a blended, balanced sound, ultimately weakening the chemistry between them. Their training in both music theatre and opera are starkly clear which drives home this divide, whilst at the same time, poignantly reiterating the Romeo and Juliet aesthetic of their doomed love. unmissable night of entertainment that celebrates Sydney Harbour's breathtaking views

Kimberley Hodgson shines in the role of the fiery, sassy Anita who's like an adopted big sister to Maria. She has a commanding and moving stage presence, particularly when singing 'America' and 'A Boy Like That' and brings gritty and dramatic rawness to the production. The young cast is supported by Patrick Whitbread as Riff and Manual Stark Santos as Bernardo who both lead their gangs with precision and charisma. Led by Guy Simpson, the orchestra revel in the juicy tritone motifs throughout do great justice to Bernstein's phenomenal, multi-genre score, driving much of the conflict with an exciting orchestration that includes Celeste, Spanish guitar and mandolin.

Francesca Zambello's directors note references her hope that this story of racial intolerance will reverberate in a new way with today's audiences amidst the multiple current refugee crises around the world. Bursting with bangers like 'Maria', 'Somewhere', 'America' and 'I Feel Pretty', Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's West Side Story makes for a fabulous night out at the theatre. The production offers beautiful singing, stunning dance numbers, finger clicking recognisable tunes and even a fireworks display; West Side Story is an unmissable night of entertainment that celebrates Sydney Harbour's breathtaking views.


DIRECTOR - Francesca Zambello




SET DESIGN - Brian Thomson

COSTUME DESIGN - Jennifer Irwin




Opera Australia Orchestra

TONY - Billy Bourchier

MARIA - Nina Korbe

ANITA - Kimberley Hodgson

RIFF - Patrick Whitbread

BERNARDO - Manuel Stark Santos

STANDBY TONY - Joel Granger

STANDBY MARIA - Clarissa Spata

SCHRANK - Scott Irwin


GLADHAND - Doron Chester








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