Les Solomon of AussieTheatre.com writes:
When a show opens on Broadway, especially a big musical, it is normal practice to have up to 28 previews before opening night. During the last week of these previews, critics are invited to the show, but by this time the cast is well and truly settled into their stage routine and also have become accustomed to the reactions and quirks of an audience. One could call this the ideal situation for big shows.
In Australia, we are restricted often by the length of seasons — for instance a six week season is not going to allow for even 2-3 weeks of previews prior to the pressure of ‘the industry’ descending on their show.
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Wicked had a substantial number of previews (nothing like Broadway) but the cast was well into their stride by opening night, and Hairspray which is about to open is planning about 10 days of previews. Can I say, I feel that is about the absolute minimum a new show should have prior to opening. Let’s face it, producers don’t lose money on previews, they aren’t even exactly sold as such to the public. It’s more a case of easing a cast into a show before a more critical audience descends. (Of course if a show is on tour and has already had an opening, one or two previews to get used to the new theatre is often all that is offered and often is all that is necessary as the cast is already well settled into the routine of the show.)
I bring this all up because recently more than a few people were less than satisfied with the undercooked nature of the opening night of West Side Story. Let me say, this is a terrific cast of young performers and the show will no doubt settle into a good and very successful run and please many audiences. Yet what we saw on opening night in Sydney was a cast still getting used to this complicated show and there were many mistakes that were very evident to even the more undiscerning eye.
This is grossly unfair to the cast; the show had FOUR previews before opening night. This is just not good enough for a cast , many of whom were not all that experienced.
From the less discerning and tabloid reviewers, the show was given comfortable reviews, but The Australian (the most important review of all as it is read nationally) took the show and the cast to task for the whole package lacking the level of brilliance that the show demands.
I am sure this production will come together and many of these young actors will match the brilliance of the writing. I don’t believe the failings in this production is the fault of the terrific actors, but I am annoyed with the producers being keen to get a touring version up on its legs and into opening night before a short Sydney season. Could they not have had at least two or three more previews? Would that have made that much difference ?
I won’t list in details the many mistakes and the actors who had not found their voice (or in some cases their feet) by opening night, nor the amount of breathlessness as actors tried to launch into singing immediately after a big dance number . I re-iterate this is a fine production and deserves to do well during its short Australian tour. Yet despite what Mr Hitchcock may have said, actors aren’t cattle and leading them carefully into an opening night situation needs thoughtful planning .
I have seen a lot of theatre over the last 50-odd years and have spent a lot of my professional life either interviewing or looking after the careers of actors. My overall impression is that most of them are wonderful people. Yet at times I have found there is a certain disregard for actors amongst producers. Now I am sure the producers of West Side do care about their cast, but they did them no favours by throwing them to the wolves so mercilessly last week.
Go and see West Side Story. You will see a great touring set (not as elaborate or extraordinary as the 1993 revival, but that’s okay) a gifted and exciting young cast lead by two great performances from Alinta Chidzey as Anita and Julie Goodwin as Maria (I cant remember ever hearing the role of Maria sung as well), choreography that remains remarkably true to the Robbins original and a dream ballet (always the problem of every production of West Side) that is refreshing to watch. It runs huge circles around the odd and dull production of the show currently playing on Broadway.
But, hey, give these great kids a few more days to get into their stride next time!
*This article was first published at AussieTheatre.com