BWW Reviews: Standing Ovation for St. Petersburg Opera Company's WEST SIDE STORY
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.