By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – If any score is made-to-order for the musical strengths and temperament of Gustavo Dudamel, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is it. Unfortunately, West Side Story also seems to be made-to-order for our violent times, with its depiction of perpetual tribal hatreds as set forth in the original model for the piece, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein himself realized this late in life. “Alas, the materials of the work have not become dated,” he once said. “Would that they had, for the sake of the world.”
Both of these aspects seemed to be working in tandem when Dudamel turned up at the Hollywood Bowl July 14 to lead West Side Story with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Musically, Dudamel delivered the goods as predicted, and then some. And with yet another terrorist atrocity unfolding in Nice, France, only hours before the performance, the semi-staged production managed to mirror some of the incurable tumult of the world right back at us.
Dudamel was coming to this West Side Story fresh from conducting a controversial production at Cecilia Bartoli’s Whitsun Festival in Salzburg in May. That production had two Marias – the familiar one acting and dancing the part and the other one (Bartoli) an older, presumably wiser Maria 20 years after the fact who did all the singing. In the end, the older Maria threw herself in front of a subway train in despair, which was faithful to Shakespeare if not to Bernstein and his young lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, and book writer Arthur Laurents. Fortunately, Dudamel didn’t have to be saddled with dual Marias in the great outdoors, where a near-capacity crowd (the Bowl holds over 17,000 customers) turned up.
Like Michael Tilson Thomas before him, Dudamel sees West Side Story as a creature of Broadway, first and foremost. This performance was cast accordingly, using theater people with Broadway voices in every role but one, that of the nameless girl singing “Somewhere,” which was delivered with operatic fervor by soprano Julia Bullock (who did so for Thomas as well in 2013).
So you had a bunch of Jets who looked and sounded like young hoodlums, especially Matthew James Thomas‘ Riff, who spewed out the words of “Jet Song” with convincing venom. Most crucially, Jeremy Jordan’s Tony sounded and acted like a real member of a gang, not the usual starry-eyed wuss that often strains credibility; even though he falls head-over-heels for Maria, he doesn’t quite lose his gang identity. He and Maria (Solea Pfeiffer) generated some heated sexual tension when together: they could barely keep their hands off each other most of the time. Same with Karen Olivo’s stock spitfire Anita and the cool Bernardo of George Akram (a Venezuelan compatriot of Dudamel’s).
With Broadway in mind, Dudamel used a smallish contingent of the Philharmonic, about the size of a large pit band (without violas, as per the original), galvanized by a percussion section that knew exactly what to do with the dynamic Latin rhythms of the Mambo and “America,” the snazzy big-band jazz in “The Dance At The Gym,” and the swinging “Cool” fugue. The compact size of the band worked to everyone’s advantage; it made the score sound leaner, meaner, sharper, more on its toes than a blown-up orchestration for full orchestra would have.
Whatever flailing wildness Dudamel had at the beginning of his skyrocketing career has mostly fallen away; he lets his controlled baton arm do most of the talking now. In this dance-soaked, high-tension, at times heart-tugging score, which Dudamel must feel deep down in his bones, just a little, precisely-timed gesture or, in a throwback to Lenny, a twitch of the eyebrows was enough to give the orchestra a rhythmic jolt, a pointed seismic accent, or a lyrical lilt. How do we know? The Bowl’s video system had its sights set on the charismatic Gustavo much of the time, even at the expense of the singers and actors in a few dramatic sequences.
Basically, the performance took in more-or-less the complete Broadway score, plus edited stretches of dialogue, with the cast singing and acting on a raised platform behind the orchestra. That would have been enough for many a Broadway musical, but in this one, there was another critical element in the mix conspicuously missing – that of dance. During many passages where the cast would have been executing Jerome Robbins’ original choreography or that of some other dance master, there was just a bare stage during the orchestral music. Given the strength of the cast’s overall acting, the piece lost some of its potential power when the singing didn’t give way to dancing, or vice-versa; there’s a reason (other than contractual) why Robbins’ name is always featured so prominently in the credits. Perhaps there wasn’t time, or proper logistics.
The direction, credited to David Saint, sometimes looked like it was trying to cover up something, for the rumble between Riff, Bernardo, and Tony took place behind the human screen of the assembled gangs, mostly hidden from the audience, as did the taunting of Anita at Doc’s drug store (in Salzburg, Anita apparently was gang-raped). But at the end of the piece, where Chino shoots Tony, Saint drove home one of the points the work was trying to make that reverberated with the day’s headlines.
Pfeiffer’s Maria, by now totally distraught, took the gun from Chino, pointed it at the gangs as she shouted her speech about learning to hate, and then she pointed it at us in the audience. And then, most crucially, as the last soft, yet clashing notes of the “Somewhere” finale drifted by, the video camera gradually zoomed toward Maria’s face, now twisted with hatred. There was no truce for the gangs, no carrying Tony’s body off, no reason to hope for the reconciliation of warring tribes anywhere. It was a powerful, jarring way to end the night — not the way the basically-optimistic Bernstein would have done it, but powerful nonetheless.
West Side Story repeats at Hollywood Bowl on July 19. Following his three weeks at the Bowl this summer – his longest stand there yet – Dudamel will go back to Salzburg to conduct West Side Story August 20-29 (both Olivo and Akram are in the cast there, too).
West Side Story is also near the start of a mounting celebration of Bernstein in Los Angeles leading up to his centennial two years down the road. LA Opera performs Wonderful Town Dec. 2-4, the first of three productions of Bernstein musicals through 2018. The Philharmonic hints they have as-yet-unannounced Lenny centennial plans as well.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.