BERNSTEIN West Side Story
Arriving just a little too late for inclusion in my comparative survey of West Side Story recordings for BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library (March 8), this complete account of Bernstein’s beloved score may not have changed the outcome of my review but it would most certainly have enlivened the debate. So much of what Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony Orchestra achieve here hits the spot; nowhere is casting wrong-headed (and we all know of whom I speak); and while the smell of theatre does not always permeate this live concert presentation, a sense of context, of the bigger picture, is most certainly apparent.
It might have helped to have added in a few more of the book’s verbal exclamations – like the provocative ‘Beat it!’ which triggers the scrap in the opening ‘Prologue’ or some vocal sense of physical altercation in the ‘Rumble’, culminating as it does in the sound of police sirens and the ominous chiming of the clock but, more importantly, Tony’s howl of ‘Maria!’, which is excluded here and present only in the super-complete Jay Productions recording and the otherwise disappointing New Broadway Cast. I wonder, too, what point there is in including the ‘Baiting of Anita’ if you don’t include the vocal abuse and her reaction to it – again the Jay Productions recording does. In short, the new MTT version can feel a bit divorced from the stage, a bit pristine, steam-cleaned. The ‘Prologue’, for instance, has great clarity and immediacy and is very slickly played but I miss a degree of physical abandon, of rawness, stridency, of the music being danced.
That said, when MTT lets his San Franciscans off the leash in the ‘Mambo’ and ‘Jump’ sections of the ‘Dance at the Gym’, they are smoking hot. Trumpets strafe the stratosphere in the former and a terrific kit drummer makes the dance break of ‘Cool’ really sizzle. No question that MTT leaves the composer’s own version standing in both these numbers. Neither, though, can replicate the atmosphere of the Original Broadway Cast recording which (despite its incompleteness) conveys a vivid sense of the stage, of a cast revelling in the shock of newness, warts and all.
But immense care has gone into the preparation and presentation of this latest incarnation, and casting, as I say, is on the money. The Balcony scene ‘Tonight’ is about as good as it gets, with Cheyenne Jackson’s fresh-voiced Tony and Alexandra Silber’s Maria really nailing both dialogue (pitch-perfect) and number. He is idiomatic and engaged, and while he doesn’t give us the high B flat in ‘Maria’ (I suspect he and MTT might have thought it too overtly ‘operatic’), he does give us bags of ardour and intensity. Terrific. Silber is lovely, too, with more vocal colour than the average show (soubrette) soprano but never ‘arch’, never knowingly slipping into operatic mode.
Jessica Vosk’s Anita has a tough act to follow in the great, the incomparable Chita Rivera. She remains in a class of her own with that unique way of making the hurt and anger of ‘A boy like that’ sound like an extension of the dialogue. Vosk sings the song (well) but I don’t get the heat of the moment from the very ‘even’ way in which the vocal is delivered. And ‘America’ – why so sedate of tempo, so ‘proper’? Is this MTT striving for a more authentically Latino dance mode? Shouldn’t there be a touch more vulgarity in the clash of cultures?
In all, though, pretty damn good, and the first serious challenger to the perhaps never to be surpassed Broadway original – and, more importantly for some, it’s musically, if not quite dramatically, complete.