by Peter Nason
Not every musical is suitable for an opera. Could you imagine an operatic version of, say, "Kinky Boots" or "Mamma Mia"? But there are some shows that easily squeeze into the opera mold, and WEST SIDE STORY, with its bombast, its pulsating rhythms and powerful love ballads, is obviously one of them. Tunes like "Tonight" and "Somewhere" can easily be sung in the style of great opera; but what about the more galvanizing songs, the street-punk Broadway classics like "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "Cool"? How will they fare as hoity-toity "opera"? Is listening to them sung with operatic voices akin to hearing a Luciano Pavarotti plow his way through Nico & Vinz's "Am I Wrong"?
Actually, an operatic WEST SIDE STORY was recorded in 1990, conducted by composer Leonard Bernstein with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring the great Spanish tenor Jose Carreras as Tony, which caused some eyebrows to be raised when his Tony had a thicker accent than Bernardo. (Even though Carreras' "Maria" sounded beautiful, other songs came close to sounding stale and toothless, like the Hampton String Quartet tackling "Sympathy for the Devil" or a Hollywood Strings' rendition of "Venus in Furs.")
It's been twenty-four years since the Carreras recording, and now the St. Petersburg Opera Company has decided to gift us with their version of WEST SIDE STORY at the Palladium. Nightmare visions of a stodgy Carreras-type opera retread have haunted me ever since I heard they were doing it. Will this rendering take the gusto and drive out of this iconic musical?
I needn't have worried.
SPO is not turning the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim collaboration into the next RIGOLETTO. It's actually pretty much impossible to turn this Jets versus Sharks retelling of Romeo and Juliet into a proper opera (yes, it has the underscoring of an opera, but it has many straight-forward scenes without music as well). This WEST SIDE STORY may be operatic, but it's not opera.
Which is a huge relief.
SPO has mounted a beautiful, straightforward musical theatre version of the show with astonishing vocals. Music director (and artistic director of SPO) Mark Sforzini and stage director Bill Leavengood have struck gold with their top-flight cast. If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, then do so quickly. This fantastic production features several performances that should not be missed.
First and foremost, there's Brett Thiele as Riff, the leader of the Jets, who is show-stopping sensational. He looks like a young John Cassavetes and has the athletic dancing prowess of a Gene Kelly. His Riff is always in the moment, always leading, scheming, pleading, reacting; it's an electrifying performance. I've seen several productions of WEST SIDE STORY in my lifetime, and Thiele's Riff is by far the best.
Equally good is Kaitlyn Costello as the sultry Anita. Her mezzo-soprano vocals are superb (in songs like "A Boy Like That"), but her dancing (especially in "America") is off the charts terrific. In the famous "Quintet," Costello stands out when the entire cast is on the stage; the gangs are singing intensely about an upcoming rumble, and Tony and Maria are singing about being together, but all you can focus on is this sole vivacious women, sitting in a chair, heatedly wondering if her lover, Bernardo, will come home hot and tired in their "private little mix." Here's the main plot heading toward the double-homicide tragedy at the end of Act 1, but for a brief moment, through Costello's bravura talent and will, she steers the entire show toward her personal, more trivial wants. This is what it's like to own a role.
Usually the ingénues, Tony and Maria, are the least interesting characters in the show. Not here. Stefanie Izzo's Maria is just the right touch of feistiness, wide-eyed innocence and heartfelt, first-love passion. She will break your heart, and her soprano is flawless. As her fated lover, Tony, Gilad Paz takes a while to get used to. He certainly doesn't look like a traditional Tony; it's hard to imagine him as a onetime gang leader. But once his divine tenor voice emerges, especially in a particularly stirring "Maria," he's ours. His connection with Izzo is very real, and so, unlike other productions (including the movie), we care about these two star-crossed lovers very much. Their "Tonight" duet left audience members in tears. Even better, their version of "One Hand, One Heart," a song usually forgotten amongst the Bernstein-Sondheim repertoire, became absolutely thrilling. No longer is it a song that you just want to fast-forward through; here, you want it to last forever.
Some of the smaller parts stand out. Colette Boudreaux, as Anybody's, sings "Somewhere" for all it's worth. Aaron T. Castle makes for a sprightly Baby John, and Clayton Okaly, as Chino, is very strong. As Detective Schrank, Christopher Rutherford is intense without going over the top. He seethes unpredictability, and he doesn't take the easy path with the gruff blow-hard that we've been accustomed to; there's something cunning and slightly creepy about his character. And the ubiquitous Matthew McGee makes for a very memorable cameo as one of the adults in the show, Glad Hand (proving the theory that, when it comes to parts in a show, size really doesn't matter).
The main criticism that you can aim at this WEST SIDE STORY is a problem it shares with nearly every other production of it: The Jets and the Sharks do not come across as menacing enough. They're not tough, not even semi-tough. You can never imagine these young men as members of any viable street gang. With a few key exceptions (including Thiele's Riff, Brandon Martin as the hot-headed Action, and Garrett Schulte as an imposing Diesel), they look like frat boy misfits instead of street thugs; light-footed Van Johnsons rather than balletic James Deans. They would have trouble taking on a middle school soccer team. Still, the Jets' spirited Act 2 rendition of "Gee, Officer Krupke" garnered some of the most thunderous applause of the show.
Tech was fine; scene changes were adequate but could have been even smoother. Some minor mishaps occurred in the performance I saw, including a chair Schrank kicks landing in the audience and a curtain rod Anita grabs tumbling to the ground. (An audience member's cell phone also rang during the emotional finale--with the rude person even having the audacity to answer the call--but they were quickly shushed into shame and silence.) Some of the Sharks' accents were inconsistent at best. Fight scenes were effective (kudos to the fight choreographer and to the assistant fight choreographer, Dominic Reatini, who also portrayed Bernardo). Cheryl Lee's dance choreography was lively, funny and quite fun. I enjoyed the "Somewhere" dream ballet, but I wondered why Tony and Maria were not around at the start of it to revel in this lovey-dovey dreamland (it's supposed to be through their eyes; if you've never seen the stage show before, it doesn't make sense without the doomed duo in there from the beginning to see where and what this "somewhere" is).
The 20-piece live orchestra, onstage behind a chain link fence and conducted by Maestro Sforzini, was nothing short of extraordinary, bringing Bernstein's driving score to life.
At curtain call, SPO's WEST SIDE STORY received a prolonged standing ovation. The audience was so appreciative that they would probably still be on their feet right now, clapping and cheering, if the actors didn't have to go home.
WEST SIDE STORY continues July 1, 3, 5 & 6 at the Palladium in St. Petersburg. For tickets, call 727-822-3590.