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<em>West Side Story</em>: BBC Prom 39, John Wilson Orchestra
12 Aug 2018

John Wilson brings Broadway to South Kensington: West Side Story at the BBC Proms

There were two, equal ‘stars’ of this performance of the authorised concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Lenny’ himself, whose vibrant score - by turns glossy and edgy - truly shone, and conductor John Wilson, who made it gleam, and who made us listen afresh and intently to every coloristic detail and toe-tapping, twisting rhythm.

West Side Story: BBC Prom 39, John Wilson Orchestra

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast of West Side Story, John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

The John Wilson Orchestra Prom is a greatly anticipated annual highlight of the Proms season, and in recent years Wilson and his band have celebrated the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and, in 2015, Bernstein himself ( Bernstein: Stage and Screen ). The concert was billed in some sources as the first time that Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s complete concert version of the musical had been performed in the UK - though Bernstein-protégé Justin Brown conducted the LSO in a Collins Classics summer pops performance in 1990, with Derek Chessor (Riff), Cynthia Hayman (Maria) and Kurt Streit (Tony) in the leading roles. But, perhaps on that occasion the score was truncated - and it matters not: this was certainly the first complete performance of this version at the Proms, and Wilson and his musicians didn’t disappoint those who had reportedly been queueing since the early hours for day-passes. The RAH was packed to the rafters for the evening performance, the second of two that day, and the audience made their prior excitement and subsequent appreciation heartily felt and heard.

Wilson’s baton is a live wire: it jives with the silky slipperiness of the most sinuous snake, ducking and diving, neatly and niftily. With an occasional tight sway and precise, sometimes miniscule movements, Wilson indicates his intent with economy and authority, and every player knows exactly what he wants. The twenty-one violins and eighteen cellos and double basses played with plush richness; woodwind solos had space to sing; the bright big-band brassiness was alternately polished and rasping; the two percussionists juggled the panoply of chimes, maracas, whistles, cymbals and sundry sound-makers with calm dexterity. Quite simply, I felt as if I was wallowing in orchestral luxury from the first off-beat pizzicatos which initiate the Prologue to the violins’ pianissimo reminiscence of a fragment of ‘Somewhere’ which brings the tragedy to a close.

John Wilson Chris Christodoulou_2 (1).jpgJohn Wilson. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Tempi were on the swift side which was great for ‘Something’s Coming’ and ‘The Dance at the Gym’ but, while it might be judged that the up-tempo ‘Maria’ communicated the impetuousness of Tony’s passion, ‘Tonight’ needed a little more spaciousness for the phrases, and the singers, to breathe. In the latter, though, the voices of Mikaela Bennett (Maria) and Ross Lekites (Tony) blended with beguiling ease.

Tony and Maria.jpgRoss Lekites (Tony) and Mikaela Bennett (Maria). Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

After the pre-season ‘fuss’ about casting - which saw Olivier-award nominated Sierra Boggess (Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, and House of Rock) withdraw from the role after criticism that Latina/o actors had been overlooked - Bennett proved an open-hearted, pure-toned Maria, who kept her vibrato in check at moments of romantic innocence and sincerity (‘One Hand, One Heart’), soared with beautiful sweetness, and made ‘I Feel Pretty’ more convincing that it sometimes is, aided by some terrifically expressive string accompaniment.

Anita.jpgEden Espinosa (Anita). Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Lekites (moonlighting from Frozen on Broadway) made good use of his high baritone to convey just the right note of frankness and naivety, and had sufficient heft to hint at the heights of Tony’s romantic ardour, though there was little ‘chemistry’ between this pair of star-crossed lovers. Eden Espinosa was a vivid Anita, at least vocally, though not entirely convincing dramatically; that said, ‘America’ suffered particularly from the absence of a stage milieu, and in terms of orchestral flair this number was stunning. What wonderful orchestrations Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal devised between them - it seemed that the double basses might achieve rocket-style lift-off from their stools as they attacked the triplet syncopations with true panache and gusto. Alistair Brammeri and his fellow Jets whipped through ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ with spice and punch. And, while I was wondering why Louise Alder had been drafted in to sing ‘Somewhere’, she appeared in the organ loft and sang, literally, like an angel - and my unasked questions evaporated into the ether, extinguished by the pure luminosity of her soprano.

LA WSS Prom.jpgLouise Alder (soprano; ‘Somewhere’). Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

This might have been a ‘concert’ version, but stage director Stephen Whitson made use of every RAH stair-well, balcony and platform. What was ‘missing’ however, was dramatic context. There was no dialogue, excepting some spoken text over the sung numbers and one or two introductory phrases (perhaps this was fortunate, as the amplification volume button was turned up so high the spoken text would surely have become as muddied as some of the busier orchestral dialogues, which were at times cloudy despite Wilson’s fine baton-work).

And, though the cast were costumed - tight coloured ti-shirts for the muscled Jets and Sharks, ’50s frocks (some more flattering than others) for the ladies - there was little sense of the upper West Side Manhattan milieu, or the urban tensions between the white Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants which underpin the dramatic frissons. The latter find expression not just in Laurents’ book and Sondheim’s skilful lyrics, and, of course, in the score itself, but also in Jerry Robbins’ choreography - a veritable narrative ballet - and the absence of the danced expression and drama was a more serious deficiency - all the more so as for last year’s Oklahoma! it had proved possible to stage all elements that form the ‘whole show’. The second act suffered especially from the lack of theatrical context, for here the dramatic structure needs all the constituent parts to be pulling their weight. The tragic denouement seemed to take the Hall unawares, and lacked gravitas and pathos. We did have a ‘Chorus’ - the students of ArtsEd and Mountview theatre schools - tiered behind the orchestra stage-right, though their slightly clumsy choreographed ups-and-downs and ‘dramatic gestures’ didn’t make much impact.

WSS Chorus.jpgStudents from ArtsEd and Mountview. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

One positive outcome of these mildly irritating short-comings was that the emphasis was thrown on the music - Bernstein’s wonderful eclectic fusion and Wilson’s heart-winning rendition of it. As Nigel Simeone recalled in his programme article, when Kenneth Tynan saw West Side Story on Broadway in 1958 he described the score as ‘smooth and savage as a cobra’. Perhaps a little more grit, even vulgar earthiness, would not have gone amiss at times, but who could not relish such lustrous lavishness and sweetness as we enjoyed.

Claire Seymour

Bernstein: West Side Story (concert version)

Maria - Mikaela Bennett, Tony - Ross Lekites, Anita - Eden Espinosa, Riff - Leo Roberts, Bernado - Gian Marco Schiaretti, Rosalia - Emma Kingston, Francisca - Laila Zaidi, Consuelo - Jocasta Almgill, Snowboy/Big Deal - Christopher Jordan Marshall, Action - Alistair Brammer, Baby John - Jack North, Diesel - Michael Colbourne, A-Rab - Fra Fee, Officer Krupke - Phil Barnett, Louise Alder - soprano (‘Somewhere’); John Wilson (conductor), Stephen Whitson (stage director), John Wilson Orchestra, students from ArtsEd and Mountview.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Saturday 11th August 2018.

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