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Homecoming tale as West Side Story finger-snaps its way to QPAC

Culture

West Side Story is a lot of things. A modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, a pioneer of musical theatre, a story that never leaves the public consciousness. For Angelina Thomson, cast in the iconic role of Anita, the show’s Brisbane run will be a homecoming of sorts.

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It is the story of Tony, a member of white American gang the Jets, and Maria, member of Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, two teenagers who fall in love in 1950’s New York amidst a turf war between their rival gangs.

The show has been performed for 60 years since its creation by three of musical theatre’s biggest names, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins, and has since been adapted, remounted, made and re-made for cinema screen.

Now, the story of the Sharks and the Jets arrives at QPAC with Gold Coast-born, Griffith Conservatorium-educated Angelina Thomson playing the beloved Anita, Maria’s best friend and confidante.

Thomson has just finished West Side Story’s Perth run and is enjoying a few days off before West Side Story begins in Brisbane on 24 July, but she never really thought she’d be in musical theatre at all.

“To be honest – I didn’t really know anything about musical theatre,” she told InQueensland.

“My mum is from the Cook Islands so I’ve been hula dancing since I could walk, and I’ve always performed, but I wanted to be a dancer originally.

“My drama teacher in high school convinced me to audition for the Griffith Conservatorium – and I got in.”

Thomson said there was some fate involved with being cast in West Side Story, as she was cast as Anita in a dance assessment during high school before she was interested in musical theatre at all.

She then went on to make her Opera Australia debut in West Side Story in 2019 as ensemble member Consuelo.

“I knew when we closed that show that I was not done with this. I’m thought to myself, I’m going to do that again. And now another chapter begins.”

Opera Australia’s West Side Story (Image: Jeff Busby)

Thomson said she developed an affinity for Anita, an immigrant and a woman of colour who was not afraid to take up space.

“When I saw the movie, way back when, I could finally see myself on the screen. I could see someone that looked like me, even though we’re not the same ethnicity, I saw myself in her,” she said.

“She’s so confident and sassy and unapologetic and vibrant, so that definitely drew me to her.

“She’s unapologetic about how much space she takes up, she’s just not afraid of anything, it seems.”

Thomson mentioned that the racism meted out in West Side Story is something that hits close to home, as a woman of mixed Cook Islands and Australian heritage.

“Things have happened in my life where, I’ve walked through the shops and someone has snatched their bag away from me thinking I’m going to steal it,” she said.

“After the show it’s so important to let that work be work. The issues explored in the show hold up a mirror society now like, yeah it’s 60 years old but it’s also still very relevant.

“The beauty of the show is that it all comes from love, the characters do these things out of love for the people they care about which is beautiful, it boils down to community and family and love.”

West Side Story’s famous choreography, ­­created by Jerome Robbins, is equal parts demanding and rewarding and known for being a real spectacle for audiences to witness.

“I walk offstage and I fall on the ground every night and it does not get easier,” said Thomson.

“Every night I would come home, do an ice bath for my feet, have my magnesium, do my magnesium gels, Tiger Balm, roll out my muscles. There was so much maintenance that needed to happen just so that I could go back into rehearsal the next day and keep going.

“It’s a lot but in the best way. I’m in pain but it is the most fun. My heart is so full.”

West Side Story opens at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre on 24 July for a limited run, for more information visit QPAC’s website. 

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