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Review: ‘West Side Story’ staged by The Philadelphia Orchestra

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West Side Story has never sounded as good as in last weekend’s performances by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It even surpassed Leonard Bernstein’s own recording, which sounds sluggish in comparison.

Ryan Silverman and Isabel Leonard, with the ensemble and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ryan Silverman and Isabel Leonard, with the ensemble and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Never once did Yannick and the Philadelphians sound like a symphony orchestra performing a pops concert. Rather, the 42-year-old led a jazzy performance that sounded like a Broadway show but even bolder. Playing and singing were full of urgency, excitement and tension.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was reduced in size to 57, instead of its normal 90 plus. (The 1957 original cast album has an orchestra of 28, and the CD of the 2009 Broadway revival uses 30.) Nézet-Séguin placed an expanded percussion section on the left part of the stage. As per Bernstein’ score, the section included bongos, castanets, claves, conga drums, cowbells, glockenspiel, gourd, maracas, police whistle, ratchet, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, timbales, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, and more.

At the rear of the stage, singers appeared on a raised platform. Kevin Newbury (who directed the premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs this summer at Santa Fe) directed the 26-person cast as if this were a stage production, with dramatic movements simulating the dance in the gym and the gang fights. Paul Carey did a fine job of costuming. But audience members in the front of the ground floor were unable to see this because the orchestra blocked the view. Perhaps the platform might have been raised higher.

Ryan Silverman as Tony sings as the experienced theater performer that he is (he starred in the recent London production of the show), and with a strength that suits his role as the leader of the white “American” gang. Isabel Leonard looks perfect as Maria; her Hispanic accent is authentic (her mother is Argentinian) and she sings beautifully. But her vocal technique is problematic.

I overheard a patron complain that Leonard sounded too “operatic.” Indeed, she uses the head tones that we associate with sopranos. In conversation afterwards, Leonard said that she decided to stick to her trained voice, using varied interpretations but never messing with her basic tone. I can accept that, because Maria always seems, to me, to be otherworldly. She stands apart from the other Puerto Rican girls; we see hardly any interaction with her brother Bernardo, and she appears to us, as well as to Tony, as heavenly.

Comparisons with the 1957 original cast recording are inevitable. Its Tony and Maria, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, were not opera singers yet seemed realistic as they reached beyond their normal range to hit notes that were strange and wonderful, mirroring the emotions of two youngsters experiencing love for the first time.

The ensemble and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The ensemble and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Imagine yourself hearing the end of “Something’s Coming” for the first time, with the dissonant four notes on the words “maybe tonight” — G-sharp, A, D, C. And the odd triplet, ascending and descending as Tony repeats Maria’s name at the conclusion of his song to her — D, high mezza-voce A, low G. They are unexpected, unlike anything heard in previous Broadway shows.

I was lucky to have that experience when I attended the Philadelphia tryout of West Side Story before its Broadway opening. The show had not yet been recorded, so we in the audience had no preparation for what we were hearing. Bernstein did suggest his ideas for the show when he appeared on the Sunday TV broadcast Omnibus two years before, presenting a history of American musical theater. He traced its roots to German-language operetta, and discussed its modernization by Gershwin, Berlin and Rodgers. But I was shocked when he declared that a real American musical had not yet been written.

I was offended when I heard him dis my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, and I told him so. But he said that Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific were like operettas in their reliance on exotic locales: they were set in faraway places in earlier times (although South Pacific was set during World War II, only one decade in the past). He said, with a charming lack of humility, that what America needed was a musical in the present time, in an American city. Clearly, he was thinking ahead to West Side Story. It would be a new and sophisticated integration of dance, music and book.

West Side Story also spotlights racial prejudice, and it contains prescient words. The lyrics of the song “America” say: “Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America.” This is pertinent at a time when government officials speak dismissively about requests for aid from Puerto Rican hurricane victims. Nézet-Séguin talked about this before the concert and, during the performance, he brought singers and orchestra to a momentary halt at the end of that line, causing the audience to burst into applause.

The 40-year-old Bernstein who created West Side Story (in collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim) was brash, funny, sarcastic and ferociously brilliant. As I had further conversations with him in the 1960s, he still had that personality. In our meetings during the 1980s, however, he was less ebullient, more serious, and seemed burdened by the responsibility of living up to his own image. By the time he got around to conducting his own musical, Bernstein was a changed man. This is evident in the West Side Story recording which he conducted in 1984, at age 67, and that’s why Nézet-Séguin’s performance sounds much better than Lenny’s. Bernstein’s is also marred by the inexplicable casting of the Latin Jose Carreras as the leader of the gang that fights against the Latinos.

Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy in the national tour of Porgy and Bess) is a powerful Bernardo. Isabel Santiago is a gutsy Anita, Bernardo’s fiancé who sings “A boy like that will kill your brother.” Timothy McDevitt is vivid as Riff, who succeeded Tony as leader of the Jets gang. Morgan James is a standout as the nameless young woman who sings “Somewhere.” That song was sung by the high coloratura Reri Grist in the original cast, by mezzo Marilyn Horne on Bernstein’s recording, and by Kiddo, a young Jet, in the 2009 revival. James, using a mixed voice (blending head and chest), gave the best rendition of it that I’ve ever heard.

With its exciting mixture of jazz and Latin music, shifting meters and passionate emotions, West Side Story is now a classic. It’s interesting, therefore, to note that it lost the Tony Award as Best Musical of its year to The Music Man. West Side Story’s only honors were for choreography and scenery.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

The ensemble and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The ensemble and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

West Side Story in Concert played through Sunday, October 15, 2017 and was presented by The Philadelphia Orchestra at Verizon Hall at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia PA. Tickets to future concerts can be ordered online.

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