Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, Red, Megan Hilty with Seth Rudetsky, Hair
West Side Story is a modern updating of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins Set in 1950s New York City, the musical changes Shakespeare's two feuding families into members of two rival gangs, one white, called the Jets, and one Puerto Rican, called the Sharks. With both gangs fighting for home turf, the star-crossed lovers Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, get caught in the middle.
The 2017/2018 season not only marks the 70th anniversary of the Phoenix Symphony but also the 60th anniversary of the Broadway debut of West Side Story and the centennial anniversary of the birth of Bernstein. So, as Muñoz mentioned in his preshow speech, presenting a concert version of this beloved musical this season seemed like a perfect way to celebrate these combined milestones.
A concert version of West Side Story is actually something relatively new. In 2013, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony received permission from the rights holders to perform the complete musical score for the first time in a concert setting. Previously only a few excerpts from the score were allowed to be played in a single concert. The only restrictions for this concert were that the focus would be on Bernstein's music. So, no sets or choreography were allowed and only a minimal amount of the dialogue from Laurents' book was included. Even though these limitations meant that the majority of the narrative wasn't heard, hearing the brilliance of Bernstein's music played by such a superb orchestra allowed audience to hear just how marvelous the varied orchestrations are.
The cast for the concert consisted of a few Broadway singers along with several local Valley favorites and a group of talented singers from Arizona State University's Lyric Opera Theatre. Matt Doyle brought a sense of urgency and a pure, bright voice to Tony, while Morgan Hernandez projected yearning with a lilting, operatic voice that soared in the part of Maria. As Anita, the girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo, Gabrielle McClinton exhibited a fiery earthiness which also included a spirited and sexy vocal delivery.
Toby Yatso and Edward Maldonado did well in achieving the anger and energy as the two leaders of the rival gangs, Riff and Bernardo, and Skylar Bean had a great comic delivery along with Julian Mendoza, Drake Sherman and Vaughn Sherman in "Gee, Officer Krupke!" Other highlights included a light and lively "I Feel Pretty" that Hernandez sang with Brielle Amrein, Anissa Griego and Vaibu Mohan. John Batchan and Elyssa Blonder rounded out the ensemble.
Bernstein's score is beautiful, while also incredibly complex in the level of nuance and intricacy in the musical details. The one song in the score that best shows the number of layers and texture is the "Tonight (Quintet)" that features all of the major roles and the entire ensemble. The complexity and detail in the counterpoint of that song is not just thrilling but also incredibly stunning. The variations and contrasts in Bernstein's score for this show are also more noticeable in a concert setting. From the crisp, staccato beats of "Cool" to the ebb and flow of melody in the romantic ballads like "Somewhere" and "One Hand, One Heart," and the heat and intensity of the "Mambo," the level of musical sophistication is high. Bernstein's ability to have every section of the orchestra prominent and highlighted at various moments is also more apparent when you hear this music in a concert setting where the orchestra isn't hidden in a pit.
While I've reviewed a couple dozen concerts from the Phoenix Symphony, I believe this is only the second time I've seen Muñoz conduct and I was impressed with his remarkable control throughout the entire concert which was clearly evident in both the brightness and the forceful power of the playing by the Phoenix Symphony. Muñoz also continually turned toward the vocalists whenever they were singing while still holding a firm grip of the orchestra to ensure that both the orchestra and singers were always in sync. It also appeared at many times as if he was conducting the score from memory.
I believe that West Side Story is Bernstein's most accomplished, moving and significant musical theatre score. With a story and a message that is still relevant today, incredibly dynamic and polished playing by the Phoenix Symphony, a group of talented vocalists, and the expert control of both the orchestra and the singers by conductor Tito Muñoz, this West Side Story in Concert was an incredibly rewarding experience.
West Side Story in Concert with the Phoenix Symphony played four performances, from March 2 to March 4, 2018, at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at www.phoenixsymphony.org.
Music by Leonard Bernstein