BWW Review: Catch The Moon - One Handed Catch! West Side Story In Concert Reached For The Stars And Soared At The McCallum
Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old this year, on August 25th to be precise, and there are literally thousands of commemorative events around the globe including performances of symphonies, operas and ballets, lectures, exhibits, and film and music festivals. Last Friday I attended the McCallum Theatre's commemoration - West Side Story In Concert - and not only was it a spectacular celebration of Bernstein and one of Broadway's greatest musical scores, it was an evening that, once again, raised the barre of excellence for The McCallum Theatre.
Producer and Director Chad Hilligus not only assembled an incredible 40 piece orchestra, under the expert baton of musical director and conductor Richard Kaufman, and a dream cast of Broadway artists who have all, in a myriad of iterations, played their respective roles on Broadway, national and international stages, but skillfully staged a production that was teeming with style, sophistication and nuanced elegance.
Having seen and/or directed nearly as many productions of West Side Story as my years on this planet, I am always a bit disinclined to see "yet another". However, having observed a few hours of rehearsal for this production, as said rehearsal was held in my facility, I had high expectations of the evening to come. Those high expectations were exceeded at every turn. Starting with the orchestra. Kaufman's musicians were beyond remarkable. It was thrilling to hear every nuance in the score from the "Prologue" to "The Dance At The Gym" to "The Rumble" without any choreography or staging to draw attention away from the brilliance of the music and the inherent storytelling in every single note. The magic of any "concert version" of a musical is in letting the actors serve the words and the notes and not vice-versa. No costumes, no props, no scenery, no choreography. And yet, this was as "Broadway" as Broadway gets.
The performances were all stellar. Matthew Hydzik's Tony was fresh and honest and it almost felt as if the score was written specifically with his performance in mind. Hydzik's "Maria" was filled with youthful exuberance, naive hope and tremendous yearning and his golden voice enveloped the entire theatre with emotional longing. It was a standout in a show of standouts. Ali Ewoldt was both vocally and dramatically exquisite. Her Maria would easily fall in the top ten on anyone's "all time" list. Together they were a Romeo and Juliet made in heaven. The balcony scene was riveting and the climactic notes of "Tonight" utterly thrilling.
John Arthur Greene was sheer perfection as Riff and Natalie Cortez stuck just the right balance of fire and "feisty" in her Anita. The Jets (Greene, Ryan Ghysels, Christopher Rice, Alex Ringler, Clay Thompson and Mikey Winslow) hit all the right notes with the perfect blend of testosterone and comic exuberance. They felt, at all times, extremely polished and yet highly spontaneous which is mesmerizing to watch.
Hilligus' staging was smart and stylish, utilizing a bi-level playing area with most of the action happening on a platform above and behind the orchestra. It was a superbly effective choice because it kept the orchestra, and Bernstein's score, at all times front and center. The downstage playing area was used sparingly, and appropriately, for the show's most intimate and dramatic moments. The libretto was effectively pared down to minimal dialogue and storytelling to focus on the score - hence, "in concert"- and, for the most part, it worked. Because there was minimal character development it did weaken the "honest" emotional climax of the show because the audience didn't have the opportunity to care as deeply as they would in a fully realized production - but the acting was superb and the overall production was wholly satisfying.
Keith Smith's Lighting Design was the perfect bridge between "concert" and "musical" and very effective in setting both mood and dramatic impact. Jim Anderson's Sound Design was generally strong and balanced yet, for my taste, lacked a little of the "edge" in the vocals necessary in many of the dramatic and emotional moments in the libretto. The quintet was a bit muddy and lacked some of the necessary vocal energy it requires - not by the actors, but in mix. Overall the balance between actor and symphony was exemplary.
If I had a nickel for every time I praised The McCallum Theatre and, in particular, its President Mitch Gershenfeld for his brilliant and eclectic programming and for bringing such excellence in entertainment to the region - I would own The McCallum Theatre. It is thrilling to see The McCallum bravely dip its toes into producing, rather than just presenting, and it is my hope and prayer that they will continue in this direction as they have proven that they have a team with the talent to do so.
For more information on upcoming performances at The McCallum Theatre visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.