West Side Story on Sydney Harbour

West Side Story Delivers Exhilarating Feast on Sydney Harbour

It could not have been a more perfect night to premier Opera Australia’s much anticipated Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. It was a divinely picturesque setting. A theatrical hub emerged on the steps of Mrs Macquries Chair complete with a five-story pop-up bar and dining area. The water sparkled as the sun gently set behind the city’s skyline. A light breeze, coming off the still water, mingled with the crowd as they sipped their drinks eagerly waiting for the first notes of the iconic musical West Side Story to sound.

Director Francesca Zambello’s production of West Side Story made its debut on Australia’s biggest outdoor stage in 2019 and remains the most successful Hand Opera on Sydney Harbour production. West Side Story is a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. Choreographer Jerome Robbin had the vision of turning Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers into a musical hit. Featuring music from composer Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and inspiration from Arthur Laurents’ book, the musical premiered on Broadway in 1957. New York’s Upper West Side is brought to the stage, where two teenage street gangs – the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – are pitted against each other. The musical retains its timelessness heartbreaking core as our leads, Tony and Maria, who are from rival gangs, dream of a time they can love freely.West Side Story on Sydney HarbourWest Side Story on Sydney HarbourSet Designer Brian Thomson created a grungy, graffitied ‘ghetto’, which is contrasted by Jennifer Irwin’s vibrant costume designs. Irwin uses two different colour palettes to underscore the divide – with the Jets dressed in blue and green and the Sharks in bright reds and oranges. Expertly lit by Lighting Designer John Rayment, the 25-metre stage, which took more than 10 months to put together, is perfectly staged to highlight the tension between the two rival gangs.

Revival choreographer KiiraSchmidt Carper’s energetic choreography filled the enormous stage and was an enthralling exaltation of movement. The 39 cast members captivated the audience from the moment they burst onto the stage. The ensemble covered the area with ease despite the stage sloping upwards on a nine-degree incline. The male cast showed strength, energy, tension, and athletic grace in their performance while the female cast brought the sensual power in femininity to centre stage.

Award-winning First Nations soprano Nina Korbe made her professional theatrical debut as Maria. The proud Koa, Kuku Yalanji, Wakka Wakka woman was flawless. The classically trained soprano sung with a delicate innocence and produced some of the most tender dramatic moments of the musical – with the finale especially moving. Her love interest, Canberra-born tenor Billy Bourchier also made his lead role debut as Tony. With is musical theatre background, Bourchier exudes boyish charm. His soaring vocals in his rendition of Maria is just magic. While their voices don’t naturally blend, Korbe and Bourchier achieve an onstage chemistry of young love that is palpable.

West Side Story on Sydney HarbourWest Side Story on Sydney Harbour

Kimberley Hodgson delivered a strong and impressive performance as the fiery Anita. Hodgson’s brought a level of gusto to Anita’s big musical number ‘America’, with her rendition also having a poignant undertone. The rest of the cast perform with energy and vitality. Honourable mention to Molly Bugeja and her interpretation of ‘Anybodys’, Luke Jarvis as the rageful Action. Meanwhile,Wayne Scott Kermond who delivered a memorable performance in the role – albeit small – as café owner Doc. The male ensemble also brought their comedic chops to the song ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, which ellicted riotous laughs from the crowd.

West Side Story is a melting pot of different styles of music including jazz, classical, Latin American rhythms, musical theatre and opera. Bernstein’s command of these styles is what makes this score so memorable – and why orchestras love to play it. The 28 members of the Opera Australia orchestra under the masterful baton of Conductor Guy Simpson demonstrate their skill and command of the score. The complex rhythms and intoxicating melodies were thrillingly executed.

Director Zambello’s production of West Side Story is as exciting as it is robust, bold, and raw. It was a hit the moment it premiered on Broadway in 1957 and Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is no different. With a spectacular backdrop, this revival digs deep and uncovers the timeless and relevant themes of love, racism, discrimination, and the battle of sovereignty that persists just as much now as when the musical first aired 67 years ago.


– Antoinette Milienos
Antoinette is a Journalist, Violinist, and chronic suffer of F.O.M.O (fear of missing out).

West Side Story runs for approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one interval. The musical plays at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney, through to April 21, 2024. Buy tickets now. The venue is accessible.

Disclaimer: Antoinette Milienos was an invited guest of Opera Australia.
Photocred: Keith Saunders