Glimmerglass Festival 2018

West Side Story: Sellout Bernstein Celebration

Reviewed as seen August 11, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Glimmerglass chose West Side Story as the closing feature of its Leonard Bernstein centennial celebration, and it was a hit months before its first performance July 7. It sold out so quickly that an additional performance was scheduled—and sold out—long before the season opened.

Opera companies across America scrambled to celebrate Bernstein. There weren’t all that many choices to be made as he composed for orchestra and musical theater rather than opera. Candide, last season, and West Side Story were the popular choices. Both are sort of like operas.

West Side Story is loosely—very loosely—based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. While that tells the story of young lovers trying to overcome the ancient enmity between two prominent families, the musical theater version is based on love between members of warring New York City street gangs. The gangs, representing newly-arrived Puerto Ricans and native-born Americans, are a bunch of kids trying to create their own sense of family. There isn’t even mention of biological families.

To succeed, the show requires strong leads in the lovers’ roles. It got them in Vanessa Becerra and Joseph Leppek.

As Maria, whose brother, Bernardo, is leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Ricans, Becerra brought a lovely light soprano. Her dance movements were fluid and as lovely as her voice.

Leppek’s tenor provided suitable support in their love duet but wasn’t in itself notable. Tony’s close friend Riff (Brian Vu) is leader of the Jets, but Tony is the one the Jets look up to. Ironically, it is Tony’s effort to defuse the planned rumble between the two gangs that precipitates escalation from tough talk to killing.

Having gotten the sides to agree to a “fair fight” between their leaders, the downward spiral is immediate and deadly. Tony is drawn in quickly. The combatants draw knives and Riff is killed. Tony reacts in an instant, falls on “Nardo” and kills him. Both sides scatter before police reach the scene.

The original production was designed, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, famous for ballet choreography. Francesca Zambello, the director, promised to reproduce the original choreography. But with a cast of singers and actors, with a single professional dancer, that wasn’t to be.

The sole professional dancer, Amanda Castro, was cast as Anita, a major singing and acting role. She was great. Her singing was flat and brutal, but that’s the way her music was written. Her major song, “A Boy Like That” (who’d kill your brother), urges Maria to “stick to your own kind”. She doesn’t listen, of course.

Tony has gone to the drugstore where he works to borrow money from Doc, the owner, so he and Maria can run away together. (Never mind that they are just kids with nowhere to go.) Most of the Jets are there to protect him. Anita has the courage to go there, in enemy territory, to tell Tony that Maria has been delayed by police questioning. The Jets mistreat, and even attempt to rape, her. That leads her to blurt out that Chino, the boy Maria was expected to marry someday, has killed Maria, though he hasn’t.

Tony rushes out into the street, shouting: “Here I am, Chino, come and get me, too.” As Maria, to Tony’s surprise, rushes toward him, a shot rings out and Tony falls dead. That all happened in a few minutes, so the whole complex story concludes in barely two hours, not counting a 25-minute intermission.

Audience response was extremely enthusiastic. Why? I think it was because we were leaving the theater after experiencing a tragic drama, rather than a program of catchy songs to upbeat dance tunes. Sure, the songs and tunes were there, but the overall impression was of the loss of three lives and the cloud over the future of all the kids in both tribes.

The story of creation of West Side Story is almost as dramatic as the work itself. As Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, has told it: “We were four gay Jews trying to work together.” The fourth is a young Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics. Sondheim is 88. It is the centennial year for the other three. The 50s (the show opened in 1957) was the time of Congressional investigation into Communist influence in show business, and it was Robbins who fingered Laurents and Bernstein, leading to their blacklisting. Somehow this was overlooked—but not forgotten.

West Side Story is co-production of The Glimmerglass Festival, Houston Grand Opera and

Lyric Opera of Chicago. Much of the music is loud, even discordant, and conductor David Charles Abell, new to Glimmerglass, did a sensitive job keeping everything in balance. He has a long history with Bernstein, having worked him as a young musician and learning how to conduct from the master.

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