Review: ‘NSO Pops: West Side Story in Concert’ at The Kennedy Center

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West Side Story remains glorious from its opening notes to its incredibly powerful final curtain. The National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) Pops concert version adds its own distinctive, intelligent luster and pizzazz to the decades-old theater staple that has had many a production in the DC area.

The Jets, backed by the NSO Pops Orchestra, in West Side Story. Photo by Scott Suchman.
The Jets, backed by the NSO Pops Orchestra, in West Side Story. Photo by Scott Suchman.

With such a recognizable score (Leonard Bernstein), lyrics (Stephen Sondheim) and story-line (Arthur Laurents), how could the NSO Pops take on West Side Story and bring it freshness, passion and reach out to a new generation of music lovers and theatergoers? Easily, is the one-word answer.

First off, the NSO Pops concert is no stand-and-deliver concert with singers delivering a few numbers each with an orchestral back-up. Directed by Francesca Zambello, Washington National Opera Artistic Director, and Steven Reineke leading the NSO Pops Orchestra, the evening with West Side Story was way more. The orchestration alone, with so many fine musicians filling the audiences ears, was a wonder.

With the NSO Pops orchestra on the Concert Hall stage were 20 impressive, energy-rich performers who could sing, dance, and act. They included a younger generation of Broadway talent, performers from the local DC area and members of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Together they became a refreshingly diverse membership of West Side Story’s gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. They easily drew me into the unfolding story about prejudice, immigration to America from those who spoke English with an accent, and gang violence in the big city.

The Broadway performers included Corey Cott as Tony (Broadway’s Newsies and Bandstand), Solea Pfeiffer as Maria (Eliza in Hamilton tour), Krysta Rodriguez as Anita (Ana Vargas of Smash), Ephraim Sykes as Riff (Seaweed in NBC’s 2016 live production of Hairspray Live!), and Joel Perez as Bernardo (Broadway’s Fun Home).

In a program note from Zambello, the sense of his creative outlook is made clear: “What was originally a period piece about New York gangs in the 1950s has become one of the most relevant and provocative pieces of music theater ever as it continues to resonate about life in contemporary society. Revisiting West Side Story today with the NSO gives performers and audiences alike a chance to not only explore a work quintessential to American musical theater history, but to see its many layers make a profound statement about America.”

The musical numbers performed were all one could hope for in a concert version of 90 minutes that included impressive choreography and movement. They ranged from the gang anthems done with pops and snaps (“Jet Song,” “The Rumble” and “Taunting Scene”), the large dance sequences accomplished with the joy and energy (“Dance at the Gym,” and “America”), the exquisite, innocence of love duets between Pfeiffer’s Maria and Cott’s Tony (“Tonight,” and “One Hand, One Heart”) the singular sense of finding true love (Cott’s “Something’s Coming” and “Maria,”) and the spit-and-fire of Krysta Rodriguez’s take on “A Boy Like That.”

Solea Pfeiffer (Maria) and Corey Cott (Tony) in NSO Pops: West Side Story. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Solea Pfeiffer (Maria) and Corey Cott (Tony) in NSO Pops: West Side Story. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What also made this West Side Story stick with me was some of its unique staging. It was how the project design added its own magic to the production. The work of visual designers S. Katy Tucker and Mark McCullough were projected on a huge curved screen above and to the rear of the Concert Hall stage (given the current Olympics, let me call it a half-pipe in appearance). The projects floated in colors and gray tones, they were abstracts and recognizable images. The projected graphics were remarkable and humble in what they added as additional characters to the production.

Without being too specific, think of the best Charles Demuth graphics of the urban landscape and tenement water towers you have ever seen at the National Gallery or the Phillips. Then add to the visual of images of a sad-eyed-lady-of-the-lowlands, Statue of Liberty along with the melding of the American flag and the flag of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (especially as Sondheim’s “America” was sung with the line that Puerto Rico is part of America. That line brought applause and cheers from a knowing Concert Hall patrons).

One cute note, conductor Reineke played a couple of roles; coming down from his perch to become an a comic character, such as dear Officer Krupke. He was a hoot.

Another production element to note. The use of the Concert Hall aisles and balconies made the show kind of immersive in nature. That the singers coming down the aisle over my left shoulder sang without amplification so I “heard” them, well, that made me just misty with what a human voice can to reach inside me. And, yes, there is plenty of movement and dancing. New choreography danced across the front of the Concert Hall stage came across as natural and not forced to look authentic (Eric Sean Fogel listed for musical staging, Assistant Director).

So, presuming many of my readers know West Side Story (if not each line and lyric), let me conclude this way: the NSO Pops’ West Side Story in Concert is as compelling, emotion-inducing a production as one could want to take in. With local DC talent, Broadway faces, and an overall updated and diverse cast, the show, the score and the lyrics are knockouts.

Has time and events changed the world West Side Story now plays in? Certainly. Finding true love may be different today, what with algorithms and apps. Immigration issues certainly remain and are no longer seen as just a big city matter, family loyalties are always tested and love finds itself caught amid hatred, but let’s dream that West Side Story will always endure.

As Steven Reineke wrote in his note about West Side Story: “With its powerful and iconic score, this story continues to resonate with audiences of all ages as it tells its timeless tale of forbidden love and social prejudice.” Amen to that.

As my wife and I left the Concert Hall on Valentine’s night, we were engulfed in a sense of community with a departing audience buzzing about what they had just witnessed. West Side Story in Concert is tough and innocent. It is menace and poetry. It is love that flickers and is snuffed out. It is so very handsome an evening of social consciousness. And it is still so now.

Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

NSO Pops: West Side Story in Concert plays February 16 and 17, 2018, at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324 or go online.

Note: There are only 2 remaining performances of West Side Story in Concert. Friday’s show is sold out, and Saturday’s tickets are selling fast!