Review: West Side story shines with fresh flair at Dubai Opera

There’s simply no weak link. This “official” anniversary production – marking 60 year’s since West Side’s debut – comes from longterm director and choreographer Joey McKneely, who introduces two dazzling young talents as the tale’s star-crossed, doom-cursed young lovers.

West Side Story rehearsal  at the Dubai Opera  Satish Kumar / The National
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West Side Story represents an ideal equilibrium of musical theatre, a balance of music, dance and dialogue in their service to a plot as timeless as when Shakespeare penned the source material.

This classic retelling of Romeo & Juliet, transplanted to Manhattan's pre-gentrified, gang-ridden immigrant communities of the 1950s, still feels urban and modern today. Arthur Laurents's dialogue zips and fizzes with streetwise irreverence. Razor-tongued rival adolescent gangs strut with an intergenerational antagonism, haunting rusted fire-escapes and shadowed underpasses. There's a sense of both the risky and risqué, primordial hormones bubbling beneath the surface, whiffs of violence and romance alternating in the air.

And it can be hauntingly dark. West Side Story might have opened at Dubai Opera on Valentine's Day – where it runs until February 18 – but there will certainly be a few happy couples thrown into a temporary funk by the plot's tragic, closing turns.

This "official" anniversary production – marking 60 year's since West Side's debut – comes from longterm director and choreographer Joey McKneely, who introduces two dazzling young talents as the tale's star-crossed, doom-cursed young lovers. Jenna Burns plays Maria, the naïve, newly arrived immigrant sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks gang.

These Puerto Rican upstarts are threatening the supremacy of the grease-backed native Jets – think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – of which Tony, played by Kevin Hack, is a former member. Both leads are vocally blessed – they shine onstage together, with crystalline voices and considerable chemistry in the iconic duets Somewhere and Tonight (the latter last sung on this stage by Plácido Domingo, no less).

But what material they have to work with – Leonard Bernstein’s score is a masterclass of 20th century style, and stylism. Straining between high-brow concert hall harmony and feel-good popular song, and undercut with the throbbing, irrepressible sound of the streets – from jazz riffing to Latin rhythms – here brought to high-kicking, heart-pumping life under the joyful baton of long-time musical supervisor Donald Chan, who tellingly received the loudest applause at curtain call.

Bernstein announces ominous moments with sharp, atonal configurations, yet was equally adept at penning joyous choruses – such as Maria's fleeting, throwaway I Feel Pretty – or conjuring aching melodies of empathic reflection which would not be out of place in an opera. Listen to the way Anita's jazzy condemnation A Boy Like That – in which she relentlessly demands that Maria forget Tony and instead "stick to her own kind" – segues into Maria's beautiful soprano solo, I Have a Love. First the head speaks, and then the pull of the heart takes over.

There are of course familiar, feel-good moments aplenty – but even these don't come without substantial baggage, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim's era-capturing lyrical flair. The ensemble sing-along America speaks for a generation of immigrants who swapped "tropical breezes" and "coffee blossoms" for the "chromium steel" of the United States. The Jets's riotous police rebuke Gee, Officer Krupke comes overflowing with the angst of a misunderstood generation, both celebrating and condemning the societal ills which made them "human delinquents".

The most dazzling, affecting moment comes with Somewhere's ballet interlude – a dreamlike, utopian dance with the cast all dressed in white, equal and embracing – Jerome Robbins' original choreography cast with bracing 21st century symbolism.

There's simply no weak link. Laurents's zippy dialogue, Robbins's striking choreography and Bernstein's masterful score coupled Sondheim's witty lyrics conspired to create a landmark work of art which defies the term "musical". And in McKneely – who first staged West Side on Broadway in 2009 – there is a talent committed to keeping this masterpiece alive with fresh flair, still sizzling a remarkable six decades on.