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David Letterman does this bit where he talks about gang violence in New York — it’s out of control, they’re terrorising the streets, etc; he builds it up beautifully — and then plays a scene from West Side Story of the Jets prancing down the street. Oh, how I laugh…

I mean, for a story about bloody gang warfare and bitter racial tension, West Side Story is pretty gay. As in flamboyant, homosexual if you will, not the negative connotation The Kids have given it. (My obnoxious 14-year-old cousin says it all the time — I wish he’d stop). Certainly isn’t bad. I mean, has a better stage musical been written? Seriously, I’m asking. A few from Rogers and Hammerstein, I guess. Cabaret maybe. I really love Chicago, myself. But it’s pretty bloody good, WSS. Right up there.

And so staging Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s timeless collaboration yet again — no complaints from me, mind you — is pretty simple, really. You just can’t bugger it up.

They don’t. Bugger it up, that is, it’s my pleasure to report.

Producers have been putting this thing on for more than 50 years, for goodness sakes. Take it to the bank. It still swells the heart. And tears at it. Boy, it still tears, even when you know what’s coming. Pretty bloody grim for musical theatre, really. Pretty brave for 1957. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, did you know? Yeah, you knew. Star-cross’d lovers from different sides of the racial divide, and all.

Give me Leo and Steve over Will any day, frankly.

No lutes here. These soaring songs — Something’s ComingMaria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty, Somewhere, take your pick — with a magnificent orchestra (Vanessa Scammell handles the baton; nice to see a lady in the pit) enrich the soul. Really. No gimmicks required. Musical theatre how it used to be; how it should be.

The cast is all really good. I mean, you try dancing at this pace for a couple of hours while maintaining perfect pitch. It’d be unfair to pick anyone out. Downright cruel, even… But Josh Piterman is not fantastic. Sorry, mate. But you’re Tony! Romeo; the lothario. You’re supposed to carry this thing. There was a weakness in the lower register. A weakness all round, really. You could put it down to opening-night nerves if the company hadn’t just performed for a couple of months in Sydney. A bit of a shame. Charming though, with Julie Goodwin’s gorgeous Maria. Charisma up the ying-yang, those two. Meanwhile, doesn’t Alinta Chidzey bring the va-va-voom as Anita? Why yes, she does. (And no, I don’t know what that means either.)

Dazzling to look at. Those Latinos know how to party, don’t they? Those garishly coloured suits and sparkling, shimmying frocks… Ole! That’s Renate Schmitzer as costume designer. Really liked Paul Gallis’ set, too — a mix of grimy backstreet apartments that cleverly swing onto the stage and terribly romantic monochrome portraits of the Big Apple projected behind. Like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, without the neurosis and borderline pedophilia. (Great movie through, right?) Anyway, it’s all been essentially transported from overseas under Yanky directors Donald Chan (the custodian of the precious score as musical supervisor) and Joey McKneely (whose revamped choreography ignites this show for the So You Think You Can Dance? generation). They know the deal by now. Just let it sing.

Go and see it, for crying out loud. You already know you’ll love it. It’s the quintessential gay old time (as in happy). I’m still grinning.

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Curtain Call rating: A

The details: West Side Story plays the Regent Theatre in Melbourne until October 3. Tickets from Ticketek. The show opens in Perth at the Burswood Theatre on October 7 (tickets at Ticketek), in Brisbane at the Lyric Theatre on November 3 (tickets at QPAC) and in Adelaide at the Festival Centre on December 30 (tickets at BASS).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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