With a big nod to the continued centennial celebration of “Lennie” (Leonard Bernstein) that this opening of Glimmerglass 2018 season represents, one cannot overestimate the importance of Jerome Robbins in mounting this production or indeed any West Side Story. Even for the ambitious Glimmerglass Festival company, used to being thrown into the deep end in the mounting of a crossover American musical, Robbins’ work is the real (and big!) deal.
Not only did Robbins originally conceive the show, pitching to Bernstein the idea of a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and using the medium of dance to define character and advance the story, but in the making he created such a complex and demanding physical movement language that it has forever defined the iconic image for this work. Seeing it today, Robbins’ choreography emblemizes the achingly real tribal divides of race and ethnicity that continue to plague our society.
Bravo to choreographer Julio Monge, who worked with Robbins when he first came to New York from Puerto Rico, for re-setting Robbins’ moves on this company and to the entire ensemble who pushed themselves to execute the almost through-choreography with such fearlessness. Glimmerglass cast members are privileged to experience Monge’s passing “from body to body…a kind of muscle-emotional psychological memory” of Robbins’ vision.
And so are all of us in the audience. I sat enthralled and envious and wanted several times to leap out of my seat and join either the Sharks or the Jets on stage. Move over hot yoga and zumba. This could be the next wave of high ecstasy.
Another super talent incorporated into this production is conductor David Charles Abell. Like Monge, he has his own personal history with one of the originating creators, having on many occasions sat beside and been mentored by Bernstein. (Not only was Abell an original member of the choir of Bernstein’s Mass when it played at the Kennedy Center in 1971, he grew up to be mentored by and even assisted the Maestro in the prodigious work of compiling the definitive score for West Side Story decades after its debut.)
If this were not enough to make this a definitive production of the work and well worth the pilgrimage to Cooperstown this summer, there is some bombshell talent involved, not to mention taut dramatic direction by Madame Z! (That would be Francesca Zambello, General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, who happens to moonlight winter months as Artistic Director of Washington National Opera.)
I continue to applaud the director’s laser-like precision at work. She cuts into a piece of music-theatre to find what many might define as the “spine” of a work and then successfully brings all the talents on stage and then the music and design teams elucidate her vision. In this production, I could follow through every dramatic beat the psychological ratcheting up of taught prejudice into bitterness and fury and the desperate need of belonging to a gang in a society that marginalizes immigrants and other ethnic groups.
While West Side Story has always been considered a dark musical, under Zambello’s direction it becomes a fierce indictment on how our system turns kids into delinquents and delinquents into murderers and inevitably hardened felons. Not even the Officer Krupke scene stays just a goofy spoof. These kids know just what the score is with the revolving charade of sending kids from one “fix” to another.
Zambello also knows how to update without forcing a concept to overturn the proverbial canoe. The character Anybodys, originally described as a “tomboy,” under Zambello’s direction, becomes unflinchingly an outlier and part of our growing consciousness of non-gender conforming. Anju Cloud plays Anybodys with both grit and desperate vulnerability, and we empathize with her.
There is a rather curious dance sequence with three young couples that is unlike Robbins’ choreography and seems to be a kind of antidote to gang identification and violence. But to my mind, Zambello was following her passion for developing youth by bringing an opportunity to some of the youngest members of the Glimmerglass artistic family and making us consider for a moment the next generation – what world we leaving to them, what chance do their innocence and dreams have?
Whenever Amanda Castro walks onto the stage she takes command. Her Anita is one hot mama with every toss of her head, shrug of her shoulders, isolated thrust of her hips, and flip of her chili-pepper red petticoat-skirt. She and the girls pull out the stops in the big number “America” and just about burn the Glimmerglass Theatre down to the ground.
Vanessa Becerra as Maria is a lovely performer, physically and vocally. She sings with an angelic sweetness. At other times she can be physically loose, spirited as a young colt, and even clownish. With Joseph Leppek as Tony, these two in ten short lines when they first meet, make us believe these star-crossed lovers can overcome everything through love. In “One Hand, One Heart” their voices blended beautifully.
Brian Vu as Riff and Corey Bourbonniere as Bernardo leading the rival gangs are both terrific. The climactic rumble, where the two circled each other jabbing the air with switchblades, was terrifying. In all their musical numbers, the Sharks and Jets have never sounded more powerful to my ear.
Tiny glitches occasionally popped up here and there opening night. In a high wire experiment that marks a debut in such a cross-over production, blips inevitably occur. The young tenor Joseph Leppek is a good choice for Tony but his voice still hasn’t developed richness on the bottom that he has in his higher range, and emotionally he didn’t fully hit his stride until somewhat into the show. Amanda Castro who stole the show in the first act with her dancing and fiery acting chops showed in her duet with Maria “A Love Like That” that a Broadway belt does not (always) blend beautifully with a “legit” soprano. Hers sounded flat and even muffled in passages.
But in the final analysis who cares?
West Side Story
closes August 24, 2018
Details and tickets
The production was filled with pulsing changes of rhythm and styles, from the cool finger-snapping be-bop jazz sounds denoting the world of the Jets to the syncopated hot Latin rhythms of the Sharks, and the aching ballads of the lovers to the big choral anthems. Abell conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and singers superbly and pulled the audience into following (emotionally certainly) Bernstein’s musical architecture, building with insistent and unresolved tri-tones a musical world both uneasy and multi-textured.
Designer Peter J. Davison has made visually a bold stage statement that exactly complements the music and contemporized context. The front curtain confronts us with a collage that includes torn graphics, a black hand and white hand locked together in a grasp but both holding guns. When the curtain rose, a rough and dark urban street scene included grafittied walls, wire fencing that closed in like human cages in certain scenes, and, high above, a red neon sign “Hotel.” Cool darkness and hot reds were repeated in the equally bold lighting by Mark McCullough and the sensational costumes, blues for the Jets and reds for the Sharks, by Jessica Jahn.
I probably shouldn’t speak of the ending for fear of offering up a spoiler alert, but we all should know it doesn’t end well. Maria’s reprise of “Somewhere” was almost unbearably sad, it was so haunted by the video ghosts playing in my head of young people killing other young people and young non-white men abused by cops. But Sondheim and Bernstein were hinting at a deeper truth when with prescience Maria confronts the stage filled with characters at the end and even the entire audience with the lines, “We all killed him,” tragically adding, “Now I can kill too because now I have hate.’
Watching the show at Glimmerglass, we can marvel in consternation that West Side Story lost out in 1958 to The Music Man, which won the Tony for Best Musical on Broadway. We can now acknowledge that “Lennie” has written a musical that not only speaks poignantly to our times but has created a great American musical both courageous and truthful (two things many musicals are not) and for all time. Jerome Robbins has given us choreography to enthrall and shock us into waking up to how violent our society is. Finally, we can be heartily grateful that the then twenty-six year old Stephen Sondheim brought complicit youthful energy and a generational connection with a head full of words that he used so cunningly, taking the original libretto and refashioning it to make it the sparkling work it is today.
Together they seem to be asking us, as indeed Zambello’s production does, ‘Can love conquer hate?’ The verdict is still out, but this production opens hearts to choose love.
West Side Story. Composed by Leonard Bernstein. Book by Arthur Laurents. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Original Conception, Direction and Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Stage Direction by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by David Charles Abell. Associate Direction by Eric Sean Fogel. Choreography by Julio Monge. Sets by Peter J. Davison. Costumes by Jessica Jahn. Lighting by Mark McCullough. Featuring Vanessa Becerra, Amanda Castro, Corey Bourbonniere, Joseph Leppek, Schyler Vargas, Dale Travis, and Brain Vu, and also with PJ Palmer, Andrew Ryan, Tyler Whitaker, Michael Hewitt, Conor McDonald, Spencer Britten, Anjou Cloud, Rachel Kay, Joanna Latini, Christina Bourassa, Maria Noto, Molly Bowen, Matthew Steriti, Jawan Cliff-Morris, Brian Walin, Michael Pandolfo, Giovanni Rivera-Litz, Shane Bray, Tesia Kwarteng, Brennan Martinez, Olivia Barbieri, Kresley Figueroa, Michelle Arotsky, Zachary Owen, Maxwell Levy, William Clay Thompson, and Bella Zonderman . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith