On the Road to Somewhere – Alinta Chidzey in West Side Story [Feature Article]

By: Pepa Wolfe

On the Road to Somewhere

Actress Alinta Chidzey is wowing audiences as she burns up the floor in West Side Story, bringing sass and charm to the role of Anita. Life Music Media caught up with her for the Brisbane leg of the Australian Tour.

For someone who has just taken a quick break from an intense tech week to talk to the media, Alinta Chidzey appears very relaxed.

It’s a sunny day at Southbank in Brisbane, where the cast and crew of the classic musical West Side Story are busily preparing to launch the next leg of their Australian tour. Chidzey sits sipping an orange juice and speaks enthusiastically about the role of Anita – the fiery Puerto Rican immigrant unwillingly caught up in a 50s gang war – for which she is receiving rave reviews.

She is excited about the production, citing the show as one of her all-time favourites, and appreciates the good fortune to be a part of it.

“It’s one of the reasons why I do Musical Theatre, this show. And to be able to play it, being in the right place at the right time, is really special.”

Director/choreographer Joey McKneely has gathered together an impressive young Australian cast, some making their Musical Theatre debut, generating a whirlwind of renewed enthusiasm for Jerome Robbins classic choreography and bringing the 1950s Musical to modern audiences.

While describing McKneely as intense, Chidzey is enjoying the experience.

“Oh, he’s great,” she says with admiration, “He taught dancers in this show to be actors, not just dancers, and to come from a real acting background of how you move. Everything tells a story. [He’s] very passionate towards the show and it means a lot.”

West Side Story is a juggernaut of dance and song, considered by many to have set the standard in Musical Theatre. Between the athletic choreography and the dynamic score, the work is extremely demanding.

“It’s pretty intense. You have to be so fit. I’m probably the fittest I’ve ever been,” she muses. “And you have to be on it vocally every night. You have to have the stamina for the dance. And as an acting role, it’s very challenging.”

For Chidzey the lure of Musical Theatre was instant. Studying all three disciplines, dance, music and acting, she finds it impossible to choose a favourite.

“I studied dance when I was young,” she begins, “and as I’ve gotten older the psychological element of acting is so interesting. Then music comes in. I’ve always loved music and I love singing. It’s such a great way to express yourself.”

The weighted combination of all three makes Anita from West Side Story a dream role. A spirited character, the embodiment of latin charisma and sex appeal, whose delight at the freedom and opportunities of the US provides a counterpoint to her boyfriend Bernardo and his gang the Sharks deep seated anger over the racism they endure. An audience favourite, Anita and the Shark girls dancing up a storm to ‘America’ is a show highlight and was used to showcase West Side Story at this year’s Helpmann Awards.

The actress seems to enjoy her role as much as audiences do, and it’s this affection for the material that drives her, allowing her to relive Anita’s joys and sorrows night after night.

“I love the journey she goes on,” she explains, quite simply. “She’s gone from this vivacious, very fun loving, passionate, fiery character… and then you see her life change. She crumbles. She’s abused by the Jet boys, and her partner, the love of her life is gone. It’s quite tragic, you know.”

The scope of the drama, of star-crossed lovers, racism and vengeance, is grand. Even the violence, while perfectly timed and highly theatrical, is elevated by Leonard Bernstein’s score and Robbins’ celebrated choreography, giving the scenes considerable impact. A player in this potent mix, Anita goes through quite a confronting ordeal. Chidzey admits it’s a challenge.

“Facing the Jets at the end, you know, it’s an intense scene to play and come out of. It takes a bit of time to wind down from.”

Working on a touring production provides marked variety, even to a well-oiled machine such as West Side Story. With every new theatre comes new spacing, sound changes and technical differences that the cast and crew must quickly adapt to. The moving sets have added their own particular complications.

“In the old set that we had in Perth, they had trackings in the floor, so you actually had to jump over the tracks and not dance on them,” she explains. With such involved choreography this would have been quite an adjustment. “This is why I love this set so much,” she adds, “because it doesn’t have that so I can just dance wherever I want to and I don’t have to worry about it.”

When you consider the production’s demands, the complications of touring and the travel, it’s a very hectic time. And then there’s the various media and publicity engagements which, like today’s meeting, interrupt the focus of putting on a show. But Chidzey takes it all in her stride. “I love this job, so I’m happy to do it.”

That much is evident as she speaks with ease, all smiles and cascading curls. She seems energised and yet quite at home.

Touring is something she is growing accustomed to, having toured Australia previously with productions such as Dusty: The Original Pop Diva and Mamma Mia!, and once West Side Story is done, Chidzey will join The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a concert performance of Webber’s greatest hits, which will tour the country in March/April of 2011.

Her work has also taken her overseas, touring Asia in Cats and more recently to Holland where she performed in Dirty Dancing. While she enjoyed the time abroad, it gave her a new appreciation for Australian productions.

“It was a great experience living in another country. But I really believe that Australians have such a great work ethic and I really love performing here because of that. Here people work hard and they love what they do and they’re not slack.”

However, if New York calls, she’s not going to say no.

“That’s probably one place I would go to work for sure,” she grins.

So what does Chidzey get up to when she’s not tearing up the boards? Well, there’s the Melbourne band she sings with, Lady Luck.

“I’ve got a three week break after this, so I’ll go home and do a couple of gigs with them,” she explains. Then West Side Story heads to Adelaide for its final run.

But while she’s in Queensland the young Melbournite is hoping to catch a spot of sun and surf.

“I think we may go snorkelling down near Stradbroke. Do a trip there. I just love the beach so I’ll probably head down that way, and also down to Byron.”

The lazy pace of Byron sounds like the perfect counterpoint to Chidzey’s current schedule. But for now it’s back to work. With a smile and a wave she heads back into the Lyric Theatre, excited about tomorrow’s performance, and quite literally with a spring in her step.

– Pepa Wolfe

Brisbane audiences will have the chance to catch her with the exuberant cast of West Side Story at the Lyric Theatre until December 5th 2010. Alinta Chidzey will be back in Brisbane next April, performing in The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, also at QPAC.

* WEST SIDE STORY @ Lyric Theatre QPAC, 7th November 2010 [Live Review]
* WEST SIDE STORY @ Lyric Theatre, QPAC Brisbane 4 Nov-5 Dec 2010 – [Theatre News]

More articles by Pepa Wolfe:
* The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table @ Cremorne Theatre, QPAC 15th October 2010 – [Live Review]
* Sylvia by A.R. Gurney – Brisbane Arts Theatre, 11th September 2010 – [Live Review]
* Rock for the Regent! 2 @ The Globe Theatre, Fortitude Valley – Saturday 10th July 2010 [Live Review]
* Northern Brisbane Rollers Derby League – Season Two Bout One [Live Review]