Glimmerglass Festival 2018 Review – West Side Story

A Potent & Relevant Interpretation of Bernstein’s Classic Score

By Matt Costello

It’s an interesting question: should opera companies stage musicals?

On one hand — especially for US opera companies and festivals — you can argue that it is a uniquely American art from, this descendant of operetta that entertains audiences all the way from Broadway and the West End, to Sydney and Shanghai. And, you might also argue that it is music, voice, dance, and story combined. And finally, perhaps it is all a moot question since opera companies have embraced – to some extent – musicals of a certain caliber and quality, and the Earth continued its safe course around the sun.

But for my personal opinion, I am not a total fan of the idea. There would seem to be plenty of places to see the classics of American Musical Theater, from quality road show performances, dinner theater (no thanks!), and even the ever-present high school productions – which, to be honest, can be surprisingly good.

But with opera seeming to be both a more experimental and also a more fragile art form these days, I would argue that presenting real opera is the true job these companies need be doing.

An Exception

So then —  what of the subject of this review? The case in point: this centenary year of his birth, Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story?” Despite my personal opinion expressed above, there is always an exception to any rule, right? And for me, that exception — bar none — is , yes, this musical, “West Side Story.”

My reasons for holding this musical in such high regard are many.

First, Leonard Bernstein composed the music. And the line between his lighter fare, such as “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” versus “Candide” and “Chicester Psalms,” is not great. Brilliance — innovation, drive and drama abounds in all his work.

In the pre-performance lecture on the musical, assistant conductor Louis Lohraseb did a fantastic job of showing the intricacies and playfulness of the “West Side Story” score, from the classical and clever use of the tri-tone, to interweaving fugues into the propulsive music. He even demonstrated an hidden musical joke that refers to Bach.

Makes sense. After all, what else could one expect from the man who led the Harvard Lecture series on classical music, ‘The Unanswered Question?”

Lenny’s exuberance and passion as a conductor and composer touches all his work.

Add then add to that the choreography of Jerome Robbins, classic and unforgettable, and that combination elevates the piece as well. And with Sondheim’s lyrics — who was soon himself explode  as a composer in his own right — “West Side Story” represents a rare trifecta of genius.

“Star” of the Night

It was clear to all attending the performance of “West Side Story,” all of which were sold out for the festival’s run, that there was indeed one “star,” if you will.

And that star – performance-wise – was the choreography. The production’s choreographer, Julio Monge, re-created the original Jerome Robbins choreography. Monge had worked with Robbins, and the evidence is on stage of the faithfulness and precision that he brought to reproducing the electrifying choreography of the original production, nearly 60 years ago.

But no matter how faithful that choreography is replicated, it would not mean much if the ensemble couldn’t — as they say — pull it off.

And did they ever. While I always thought that I primarily loved West Side Story for the fantastic Bernstein score, after seeing this production, I am not so  sure.

Each number, whether the opening Jets song to “America” to the smaller balletic numbers often interwoven with music were – quite simply and literally – wonderful.

Amanda Castro, who played Anita, was a standout dancer, but the whole troupe was stunning. The Jets, led by Brian Vu’s charismatic Riff, danced and sang in a way that can easily stand up to the classic film’s Robbins-supervised dancing.

Making the Music Shine

The Festival orchestra led by David Charles Abell made this familiar music shine in a way that only a quality orchestra can do. Details emerged from the emotional playing, and, at the show’s end, the orchestra and its leader got a thunderous ovation.

All the leads were excellent, with Joseph Leppek’s Tony capturing both the ardor and the fragility of his doomed love for Maria, Vanessa Becerra. And Maria’s powerful voice filled the compact and acoustically rich theater.

Countered by Corey Bourbonniere’s elegant Bernardo, the rivalry of Jets and Sharks was never more visceral.

I could list each every one of the players, from Dale Travis’s poignant Doc, to the (amazingly relevant) police officers, Zachary Owen and Michael Levy.

Still Relevant After 60 Years

My guess is that I wasn’t alone in thinking that in a strange, perhaps unpredictable way, this story of the clash of two cultures has somehow – this day, this age – become perhaps even more relevant.

Last spring, I reviewed New York City Opera’s “Cruzar de Cara de la Luna,” a timely maricachi (!) opera about immigrants arriving here without documentation.

Add while “West Side Story” is actually about two groups of Americans, the second or third generation Europeans facing off against the newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the same conflict and the same tensions emerged in this show that we see all over the news. That the show is still so relevant gave everyone in that theater –regardless of one’s political persuasion — something to think about.

And at the end, the show over, almost too fast — it was that good – the audience en masse got to its feet.

It is clear why the run is sold out. And more importantly, it is also clear that — while Glimmerglass has a reputation as gem of a festival, perhaps not so well known as others — that reputation is totally warranted.

It was my first trip there. After this performance, I can assure you, it won’t be my last.






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