Lyric Opera of Kansas City 2018-19 Review: West Side Story

A Powerful Performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Masterpiece on Opening Night

By Freddy Dominguez

Leonard Bernstein feared he would only be remembered for “West Side Story.”  As theaters around the world celebrate the centenary of his birth, a range of his works have come back to the spotlight, but opera theaters have confirmed Bernstein’s fears.  His only “true” operatic masterpiece, “A Quiet Place,” has received relatively scant attention. This is a shame, in part because of the opera’s richness, but also because “West Side Story” is often strangely served in operatic hands. Take, for example,  Bernstein’s own horribly miscast recording with José Carreras as Tony. Other strange episodes include Cecilia Bartoli’s recent Salzburg run as a present -day Maria looking back at her young self acted and danced by Michelle Veintimilla.

All this to say that I attended opening night at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City with a heavy dose of skepticism. To my delight, this mostly traditional production  (co-produced with the Houston Grand Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and Glimmerglass Opera) dissipated my fears. Performers conspired to make it a night of excellent music and gripping drama. An appreciative audience was stirred to some foot-tapping and,  by the end, there were plenty of moist eyes. Few musical works of any genre can convey exuberant joy and unforgiving sadness in just a couple of hours.

Beautiful, But Troubling 

Francesca Zambello’s production is both beautiful and troubling.  The action is framed by two tenements that suggest the divided world between rival gangs: Jets vs. Sharks. On the left (Shark territory) there is a brick building with a fire escape and the suggestion of an old painted ad. On the right (Jet territory), just the top part of another building suggested by a thick cornice. On the roof, facing away from the audience, a neon “Hotel” sign. In between these two structures, a group of water towers press against the lovely grays, blues, yellows, reds of the sky at different times of day. These basic elements together with all the other ingeniously concocted scene changes hearken back to the original show’s 1950’s setting. This production has the virtue of evoking in equal measure the idyll and foreboding, a run-down world filled with youthful, bohemian charm.

Unfortunately, the costume design (by Jessica Jahn) suggests that the action here takes place sometime in the 1990’s. One Jet, for example, wears a New York Knicks number 33 jersey (Patrick Ewing).  In program notes Zambello claims sensitivity to the fact that the show’s original creators lapsed into stereotype. She tells us this is often the case with “period pieces.” By “updating” the production, however, Zambello and her team crudely impose a situation that had very specific resonances half a century ago into a later period when those resonances no longer fit.  Zambello rightly points out that the show has always said something about the “tribal” nature of human relations and “othering” processes. But it is also a show about a very specific dynamic that rang true in the 1950’s — the relationship between a more established immigrant community (Polish, Italian, Irish) with a surge of new outsiders, Puerto Ricans. By implicitly suggesting that this is still the dynamic in the 1990’s,  the production team not only distorts reality, but reinforces Puerto Rican othering today. Perhaps this would not have seemed an issue of concern when this production was first conceived, but the message is particularly troubling in light of recent political events and discourses after Hurricane Maria.

Other important details suggest a stilted vision that cannot be passed off on the original creators. When the Puerto Rican tenement opens up to reveal Maria’s room, the audience sees a space unfortunately littered with “Puerto Rican” bric-a-brac.  A part from a flag (fair enough) there seemed to be a picture of Sonia Sotomayor, a poster of Ricky Martin, and not one but two images of the Virgin Mary. One seemed to be the Virgin of Guadalupe (important in Puerto Rico, but most commonly associated with Mexican religiosity) and another small statue surrounded by Christmas lights. Apart from the crassness of the visuals, this kind of empty nativism seems at odds with Maria, one of the few characters in this piece that can see beyond the strict boundaries that bind and define so many others.

Orchestra on Fire

David Abell led the Kansas City Symphony in an excellent reading of Bernstein’s final symphonic score.  If early on there was little rhythmic lag and occasionally ensembles seemed on the verge of pushing the limits of unity, Abell helped underline the stylistic diversity of the piece in revelatory ways.  Not only do we have a score filled with smooth jazzy bits and propulsive mambos, but one also filled with romantic throbbing worthy of Puccini, high silvery lines of music worthy of Richard Strauss, and wild, jagged rhythms worthy of Stravinsky.  That these elements are so beautifully entwined are a testament to Bernstein’s catholic musicality and to Abell’s clear vision. There is a way that this score, in less sure hands, could run amok, but Abell excelled at articulating controlled chaos. His skill was most evident in the dance numbers where the fine choreography (Julio Monge) and fine dancing mirrored orchestral exuberance.

Baritone and Tenor between Opera and Broadway

As Tony, the reformed Jet, Andrew Bidlack had a mixed night. He undoubtedly possesses a remarkable tenor, both slender and capable of dark shading. Agility and beauty were evident throughout, especially in upper-register pianissimi and at various moments of ripped emotion.  Throughout the night, however, he struggled to find a balance between the operatic elements of his voice and more conversational, Broadway gestures. His “Something’s Coming,” while well-intoned, lacked the propulsive quality required to express real expectation.  His “Maria” blossomed into ardor, but started meekly (not dreamily) and notably under pitch. If at times I thought his Tony leaned too hard on the wimpish (he had a history of violence and is ultimately a murderer, after all), he did summon hot-blooded passion and moments of extraordinary tenderness in his excellent duets with Maria.

Brian Vu as Riff seemed at ease with the stylistic demands of the piece. He was a tough guy, but not one given over to passions that mark Tony’s ascent to ineffectual goodness or the rest of the gang as they devolve into viciousness after his own death. He also had spunk.  Perhaps because he has already sung the role at the Glimmerglass Festival and in Houston, Vu seemed at ease with the colloquial bits of his role which he fearlessly sang with operatic resonance. His “Jet Song” in particular provided a strong, testosterone filled start to the pissing contests at the heart of the drama

Two Divas

The  “Shark Girls”  helped provide some of the most satisfying moments of the night.  In “I Feel Pretty” and “America” they brought musical bite, levity, and pure fun.  They were an excellent support to the night’s extraordinary Anita and Maria.

Gabrielle McLinton (Anita) received the most electric ovation of the night.  She possesses chiseled mezzo together with an ability to spit out text both clearly and with nonchalance.  On stage, she always seemed to be in control of herself and of her circumstances. Her Anita was so comfortable in her skin, so at home in her sensuality, so unsparing in her common sense. McLinton’s ability to reveal Anita’s power ensured that the “simulated” rape scene perpetrated by the Jets as she tried to save Tony from imminent death was arguably the most powerful, disturbing, shocking scene of the night.

Vanessa Becerra was the show’s anchor.  Her Maria is an innocent romantic, but none of her feelings are small or slight or naive. There is dignity in Becerra’s voice. It is not a large soprano, but it has a certain beefiness in the middle that does not allow for anything she sings to sound slight.  Her “I Feel Pretty” was revelatory. She made sure that it did not come off as a chirpy trifle, but as a first reflection of maturity and self-assurance. Her “Somewhere” was a convincing portrayal of revery and foreboding. In her duets with Tony, Becerra’s Maria counterbalanced his unbridled honesty with a dab of fear. Becerra and Bidlack brought out the best in each other and ensured that their love seemed worthy of the tragic consequences.

Power and Relevance

This performance did not resolve the perennial debate about what “West Side Story” is.  Bernstein clearly believed it had operatic qualities — these were toned down by the show’s original collaborators — and ultimately chose an operatic cast for his own recording. And yet, it is a musical too. Why choose?

Regardless of genre, “West Side Story” is a powerful piece. Just as when Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet” when Elizabethan England was a cauldron of social strife, so Bernstein and Sondheim made “West Side Story”  during hard times in New York City. The story goes on today. This piece remains relevant because the relationship between Maria and Tony is believable and as such it dissolves differences, it seems to overcome the caricatures that allow and promote deadly violence.  The horror of Tony’s death and Maria’s blossoming hatred in its wake is in the realization that the intimate and true joys of human interactions, of love, are overcome by tribalism. This production reveals how everyday intimacies lose out to a corporate mentality that overwhelms it. This is why even today we can eat the food picked or made by  “illegal aliens”  while justifying the State’s will to keep the children of “others” in cages.

In one of the musical’s most famous numbers, “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the Jets talk about all the social contexts that seem to “justify” their misbehavior. On the one hand, this is a send-up of crass self-serving logic, these are kids that won’t own up to their badness. On the other hand, despite its comic tone, the number reveals a core message. We are all implied in human horrors. In the final scene, Maria stands over the corpse of her lover and acknowledges her lost innocence and chastises everyone else for bearing witness to the tragedy. “We all killed,” she screamed. “I can kill now because I hate.” Sweet Maria becomes part of the problem, part of the force by which violence will surely live on.


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