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Musical theatre masterpiece springs into Canberra

Canberrans showed their appetite for top flight musical theatre when Mamma Mia! had a sold out run at the Canberra Theatre in late 2017.

And now nearly two years later, Canberra’s eager musical theatregoers will once again have their thirst for full-scale professional content quenched when Opera Australia’s (OA) production of West Side Story comes to the Canberra Theatre on 10-27 October.

Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is the famed mid-20th Century musical retelling of the age-old story of star-crossed, forbidden love.

Having been on the road since April, touring across Australia and Germany, actors Todd Jacobsson and Sophie Salvesani will come to Canberra with the rest of the production’s all-Australian cast and crew early next month.

Jacobsson, who plays Tony, told Canberra Weekly the tour has been a big undertaking for everyone involved.

“This one is such an emotional rollercoaster that it’s never easy … You really have to invest yourself for two and a half hours every night, and you have to do it eight times a week.

“You have to find a way of making it fresh for every audience, and making it truthful without it ever becoming repetitive when the nature of the job is extremely repetitive.

“You have to make emotions like falling in love and tragedy feel real every night. As an actor, the only way to do that is to go there truthfully.”

West Side Story counterbalances its heavy thematic content negotiating ethnic violence, tragedy, young love and bigotry with its show-stopping soundtrack and flamboyant choreography.

Salvesani, who plays Maria, said the conflict between the Sharks and the Jets at the core of West Side Story is part of the reason it still resonates over 50 years since debuting.

“It’s not just different races having conflict, it’s religions or it might be friends who aren’t getting along anymore, and people can quite easily relate to it; they don’t necessarily have to see it as two feuding gangs.

“The love aspect resonates as well, the idea that love can overcome anything,” she said.

“Not only do you leave humming a tune, but you also leave thinking ‘wow, this reflects on society today’, which is a weird thing, but I think it’s appropriate,” Jacobsson added.

Known for its toe-tapping, show-stopping soundtrack and flamboyant, esteemed choreography, that’s counterbalanced by West Side Story’s heavy thematic content negotiating ethnic violence, tragedy, young love and bigotry.

Opera Australia’s production will lean heavily on the choreography and direction from the musical’s original 1957 Broadway production.

“In the same breath we are given a bit of leeway with it, so if something isn’t working for us we’re able to tweak it and find something that feels natural,” Salvesani said.

“Our director, Joey McNeely, has been doing the show for nearly 20 years, and worked with Jerome Robbins the original director himself so it’s not a cookie cutter production in any way,” Jacobsson added.

He said this production is energised and further authenticated by featuring such a young cast across the board.

“This cast is for the first time so young. So all of a sudden you have 17-year-olds playing 17-year-olds on stage, and that’s something that’s really easy to relate to as an audience member, and just gives the show so much more truth.

“For a lot of these people, it’s also their first job, so to be in a rehearsal room with someone who’s making them experience these emotions truthfully is quite harrowing.

“To be having to experience death and tragedy and horrible, horrible hate and racism … that’s a really disgusting thing to have to experience, but once you’ve done that, your emotions are at such a heightened level that to then perform a scene, it becomes horrifically believable and brings an incredible authenticity to the show.”

Jacobsson said he’ll be honoured to perform in Canberra, where full professional productions of this scale are a rarity.

“In places like Melbourne and Sydney it’s so readily available, to come to somewhere like Canberra where you know it’s a treat, well it’s also a treat for us to bring a show of this scale to a place like this.”

OA executive producer Alex Budd told Canberra Weekly that West Side Story broadens the musical works the organisation performs to cater to the widest audience possible.

“There’s a lot of wonderful musical theatre that’s come out of the 20th Century, and this is one of the icons,” he said.

Budd added that a new theatre complex would make Canberra far more attractive for touring productions, as the limited 1,200-seat capacity at Canberra Theatre reduces profit margins and acts as a deterrent for many.

“When you look at the statistics about Canberrans attending musicals, it’s really low here when compared to other capital cities and it’s not because the audience doesn’t want it.

“This venue is not big enough to technically house a lot of the big productions, and with enough seats to make the finances work,” he said.

West Side Story will be performed at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 10-27 October; canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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