by Marakay Rogers
'The Music of WEST SIDE STORY' is the latest offering in PRiMA Theatre's staged music events. This one is notable not only for its reinterpretation of the music and dance of Leonard Bernstein's classic score (Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are perfectly maintained), but for its inclusion in its cast of the 2009 revival's Tony-nominated Maria, Josefina Scaglione. Managing Director Mitchell Nugent has created an electric production worthy of the acoustics at Ware Center.
The hardest thing to bear in mind in watching this event is that Ms. Scaglione is singing as herself, singing the lyrics of the character Maria but not portraying her, and that the other performers are singing the lyrics for characters but not actually playing those characters. This is especially significant when watching "Tonight" and "Somewhere," which Ms. Scaglione sings against two different male partners; otherwise, one might believe that Tony had undergone a sudden transformation. Despite this potential confusion, the vocal effects are worth the moments of visual surprise. Ms. Scaglione's pure, clear soprano is well known, and the two local lead male performers, Jesse Corbin and Bryon Smith, are both talented singers deserving of recognition.
Corbin, who performs with Sight and Sound Theatres, is a recent graduate of Lancaster Bible College, originally from Pittsburgh, and though not Larry Kert, he is not only a fine singer but possesses remarkable stage presence, performing a remarkable "Tonight" with Scaglione. Smith, a former AMDA student, is a veteran of the central Pennsylvania dinner theatre scene who previously appeared in PRiMA's staging of CHESS and recently played Dan Goodman in Ephrata Performing Arts Center's production of NEXT TO NORMAL. Smith's duet with Scaglione in "Somewhere" conveys all the longing that the song intends us to feel. Not surprisingly, a definite highlight of the evening was Corbin's and Smith's duet on "Maria," which gives the listener an entirely new take on a song that has in many ways become quaint in its original version.
Although some few songs, such as "Tonight" and "Somewhere," are not immediately noticeable as being heavily altered in terms of tempo and style until the listener is well into the song, this is by and large a jazz update of the already heavily jazz-influenced Bernstein score. Jazz scorings of WEST SIDE STORY are nothing new, Andre Previn having provided the first newly arranged jazz recording of it in 1959, with Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson, and Dave Brubeck following suit.
This presentation feels as if it owes a debt of gratitude to Brubeck's work, and that is by no means a bad thing. The five-piece band that both backs up the singers and also performs several instrumentals could support an entire evening of the music by itself and leave a musically sophisticated audience content. Saxophonist Bob Howell, drummer Dave Zygmun, and percussionist Hector Rosada were among the evening's strongest performers. (Zygmun and Rosada perform solos in the "Rumble" instrumental that are reminiscent of the extended percussion solo in the jam session on Sammy Davis, Jr.'s "At the Cocoanut Grove" live album, on which Davis also performed a notable WEST SIDE STORY vocal medley. They're also reminders that Buddy Rich also recorded his own arrangements of the music from this show.)
The only possible disappointment in the band's performance is in "Cool/Jet Song." Although the performance is excellent, Sondheim's lyric here is so strong and so powerful that a vocal arrangement seems called for, especially with the strengths of vocals such as Corbin's and Smith's behind it and with the fine choreography that this show has. Nonetheless, the saxophone solo here is absolutely worthy of note.
"I Feel Pretty" is perhaps the most comic turn of the show, featuring Scaglione as a mirror-besotted Maria, and Brittany Adair Adams, Sydney Leigh Allen, Kelsey Zimmerman, and Angela Walker as a quartet of mocking companions. However, the star turn in this number belongs to Rejinald Woods, who provides his own encore verses of the song, followed by a bit of a vocal throwdown between Woods and Scaglione. Woods, a native Floridian and BFA graduate of University of Central Florida, formerly with the Classical Theatre of Harlem, now with Sight and Sound, possesses a fine voice and great timing; it is a shame that he plans to move back to New York this coming year (as does his castmate, talented singer Michelle Rajotte of American Music Theatres). His musical line is a jazz vocal strongly infused with traditional Mahalia Jackson gospel, and he delivers it flawlessly.
The opening number, "Something's Coming," is well-staged, but at the opening the vocal harmonies are splendid but the lyric is muddied, most likely a sound technician oversight that at this performance was quickly corrected. The gym dance sequence following it is well-choreographed, although the dancing seems just slightly slow compared to some other stagings of the number. The beloved "Gee, Officer Krupke" is taken into an up-tempo rap-style rap and breakdance number that, while amusing, is perhaps less effective musically than the other songs in the show. Moving the original lyrics into a rap causes some of the verses to fall off of the melody awkwardly – and the very modern updating doesn't quite suit the "jeepers, creepers, gloryosky!" language of the lyric. A group of supposed teens in modern skater wear, breakdancing on the sidewalk, is rarely prone to such linguistic anachronisms, and the effect jars.
Scaglione arrived to rehearse with an established cast with only two days before the first performance, yet moved into the music, very different from the version she has previously sung, with no signs of effort. "The jazz arrangements are interesting," she says, "very different from the Broadway arrangement." She also finds it fascinating "to sing Maria as Josefina sings the songs, rather than being Maria on stage." Working with the ensemble, however, has been great for her: "Everyone in this show is amazing. They all have great voices."
"The Music of WEST SIDE STORY" has a second performance at Millersville University Ware Center on September 16, 2012. For tickets, call 717-327-5124, or visit www.primatheatre.com.