"West Side Story" is one of the most beloved musicals of all time —the 1961 Best Picture winner and a stalwart on the revival circuit (professional and amateur). It changed the face of American theatre with its gritty take on gang violence on the New York streets and Jerome Robbins' groundbreaking choreography that exploded Broadway convention to bring a more organic form of movement to the stage.
But most notably, it marked a musical departure from the music-hall and pop music trends of Broadway; Robbins recruited composer, conductor and orchestral wunderkind Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Though he had contributed to the Broadway stage with ballets and small pieces previously, this marked a departure for Bernstein who had made his name conducting and composing symphonic works. It elevated the musical to a new form somewhere in between vaudeville and opera and maintained an earthy, romantic sensibility with lyrics from a then-fledgling Stephen Sondheim.
Given this, the musical has some of the lushest (and challenging) orchestrations ever to grace a Broadway stage—a score irrevocably woven into the fabric of the American musical—where every note is etched on our collective memory. It's a natural choice then for a Philharmonic, especially when Broadway now so frequently resorts to synthesizers and electronic music in place of a full orchestra pit. The Los Angeles Philharmonic concert production of "West Side Story" amply demonstrated this point, highlighting that this music reigns supreme in its beauty and power in the American theatre.
Music and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel was on-hand to conduct and remind audiences why he is one of the most sought-after, well-respected members of his field. In purely orchestral sequences like the iconic overture, the "Dance at the Gym," and the "Somewhere" ballet, Dudamel had all eyes on him. The passion and vigor of his conducting were a perfect match for the varied sounds of "West Side Story" as they veer from jazzy to balletic to Latin to symphonic.
And the orchestra —"West Side Story" has never sounded so good. With the full power of the Los Angeles Philharmonic behind it, the score bloomed and soared leaving the audience with chills down their spine from the first high whistle to the last somber chord. The music is inherently filled with passion and emotion, and this performance conveyed every ounce of that and then some.
Though the Philharmonic was the centerpiece, the concert was elevated by its cast, including Broadway stars Jeremy Jordan, Karen Olivo, and the assistance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Newcomer Solea Pfeiffer, fresh out of college, delivered a flawless and heartrending take on Maria, surely one of the most difficult soprano parts to sing in the musical theatre canon. Her voice made every high note seem effortless, taking Maria's purity and innocence to a new plane with her vocal artistry. Even on "I Have a Love" and her "Somewhere" reprise, her voice laden with emotion and wavering with tears, she delivered a flawless performance.
Jeremy Jordan, who has stolen hearts on television and as the original Jack Kelly in "Newsies" on Broadway, seems as if he were born to play Tony (indeed, he's previously played him in a Broadway revival). His boyish good looks, natural charm and angelic voice are an exquisite match for the all-hallowed chords of songs like "Maria" and "Tonight"—with one look at his crooked smile and the sound of a few notes, it's not a stretch to understand why Maria falls for him almost instantly. "Maria" has the distinct sound of a hymn or prayer, and Jordan's vocal acrobatics made the final chorus of this song a near-religious experience. He and Pfeiffer shared a delightful chemistry as well, blending in masterful harmony on "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart." "Tonight" transposes the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" to song, and their take on the song made it feel as stirringly romantic and lush as the Bard's original poetry.
What's more—with only a few scenes of dialogue thrown in for context and emotional resonance, the concert production was stripped of a lot of the emotional build-up for its actors. This did not prevent Pfeiffer and Jordan from delivering utterly honest, romantic, heart-rending performances. They did not simply stand and deliver songs, too often the pitfall of a concert production, but imbued them with every ounce of emotion and meaning that would befit a fully staged production. From their first notes to their crushing final scene together, Pfeiffer and Jordan delivered the goods and left us in a nearly constant state of goose-bumps.
The remaining cast members were also strong. Karen Olivo, who won a Tony for portraying Anita in 2009, got a chance to show Los Angeles audiences what they had missed in New York and how much she truly deserved that award. The only weak link was Matthew James Thomas as Riff, who occasionally wandered off-key and delivered many of his lines with a strange intonation.
Julia Bollock, as the soloist who sings "Somewhere," delivered a knock-out number in the second act; the song is heartbreaking in its hope for a place where love conquers hate (a message that has resonated from Shakespeare's writing of "Romeo and Juliet" to 1950s New York to a hot July evening in Los Angeles). Delivering the song with a deep well of strength, a purity of voice, and with immense vulnerability, Bollock brought down the house.
The film and stage production are so indelibly etched in our cultural make-up, it would be easy to think a concert production might somehow lessen the impact of "West Side Story." But with a magnificent orchestra and a cast to match, this rendition proved that even stripped of choreography and most dialogue, the music of "West Side Story" has the power to reach to the very depths of your soul, and the story of an America torn apart by hate is all-too tragically relevant.
"West Side Story: In Concert" played at the Hollywood Bowl July 14th and 19th. For more information, visit www.hollywoodbowl.com.
Contact Theatre & Dance Editor Maureen Lee Lenker here.