SF Symphony soars through magnificent West Side Story

West Side Story 1
Cheyenne Jackson is Tony and Alexandra Silber is Maria, two star-crossed lovers surrounded by musical theater’s greatest music in the San Francisco Symphony’s season-ending concert of West Side Story conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Below: The company performs the Quintet near the end of Act 1. Photos by Stefan Cohen

It’s hard to imagine but it’s true: the music is so glorious you barely even miss the dancing. The San Francisco Symphony concludes its season with the first concert presentation of the full score for West Side Story, and it’s simply mind blowing. For the original 1957 production, composer Leonard Bernstein apparently made concessions in the orchestrations based on what was available to him at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then, when the chance came along to re-orchestrate for the movie in 1961, orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal (under Bernstein’s supervision) went big but perhaps too big. According to Symphony program notes, Bernstein then worried that the work had become “overblown and unsubtle.”

In 1984, Bernstein put together his dream West Side Story for a Deutsche Grammophon recording and finally got the orchestrations he wanted. That’s what we hear in this concert under the astute direction of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a friend and admirer of Bernstein’s.

This concert does not preserve any of Jerome Robbins’ original direction or choreography, nor is there much of Arthur Laurent’s book. This is truly a concert concentrating on the score. While Bernstein utilized opera stars like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa for his dream recording, Tilson Thomas wisely goes with more score- and story-appropriate Broadway voices.

West Side Story 2

This allows the focus to be squarely on Bernstein’s music. Even the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim seem less important when a fully symphony orchestra allows Bernstein’s music to jump, pop and soar so magnificently.

If it seemed like we were watching a recording session, well that’s not far off. Very little attention was paid to directorial flourishes like getting the actors and chorus members on and off the stage efficiently because all the attention was lavished on the music.

From the scintillating prologue to the tear-stained finale, Bernstein’s score has never sounded more vital, more full of brilliance and heart. The relationship between songs like “Maria” and “Somewhere” become even more pronounced as we hear them running as leitmotifs through the piece. And it’s such a pleasure to hear the delicate underscoring of some dramatic scenes, most especially the balcony scene between Tony (Cheyenne Jackson) and Maria (Alexandra Silber) when they profess their love for one another.

Jackson and Silber do an awful lot of kissing (will that come across on the recording?) in an effort to convey the instant and soul-deep connection between Tony and Maria. They do a marvelous job, and Silber especially, with a soaring soprano and a light touch, emerges as a real star. Jackson’s boyish charm carries “Something’s Coming” but his “Maria” is achingly beautiful.

The doomed couple’s improvised wedding, “One Hand, One Heart,” had special poignancy this week. Here are two people in love who want to get married with every cultural and social force around them telling them they are forbidden to do so. The resonance of that in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings involving same-sex marriage only added new depth and even more beauty to the scene.

Julia Bullock makes only one appearance, but it’s a powerful one. She sings a “Somewhere” that is not overstated (easy to do with this song) but captures the open-heart and hope amid oppressive darkness.

The show’s more comic numbers, “America” and “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” come off beautifully and don’t feel completely out of place as they sometimes can. Having Symphony Chorus members present to beef up the vocal sound is also pretty wonderful.

At only two hours, with the second act being much shorter than the first, you really feel the absence of the book in Act 2 when the tragedies descend. The music conveys a lot, and Tony’s death by gunshot is well handled, but the concert can only take the narrative so far.

Still, when the music is this a live, so full of rhythm and soul and breathtaking beauty, it’s hard to complain about anything. This San Francisco Symphony recording can’t come soon enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Cheyenne Jackson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here. (subscription may be required)

The San Francisco Symphony presents West Side Story at 8 p.m. June 28 and 29 and July 2 and 2 p.m. June 30 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Tickets are $47-$160. Call 415- 864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Odds & ends: Legally Brown, `Spring’ cast blog

You’ve gotta see this hilarious spoof of MTV’s terrible “Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for the Next Elle Woods.” It’s related to In the Heights, and it’s called “Legally Brown: The Search for the Next Piragua Guy.” Matthew Morrison, Cheyenne Jackson, Hunter Bell and other Broadway folks show up.

Also, now that the Spring Awakening tour is off and running (and getting rave reviews, I might add), you should check out Totally Trucked, the touring cast’s blog. I had some trouble with the video and sound on the site. But you can also find the videos at YouTube. In fact, here’s the cast on opening night in San Diego warming up:

OK, here’s another one (I can’t stop myself!)

[title of show] heads to broad-WAY!

OK, so that spunky little can-do musical [title of show] won’t be trying out in San Francisco before heading to Broadway. Our loss.

But the show is actually heading to Broadway. Tickets go on sale April 21, and performances begin July 5 at the Lyceum Theatre.

Those crazy kids with the video cameras have created an enjoyable [title of show] show episode about heading to Broadway — that really is what it’s about, even if you have to wait until the end to find out. But along the way, in addition to cast members/creatores Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff and Larry Pressgrove, you’ll see Jonathan Groff, Cheyenne Jackson, John Tartaglia and a glimpse of Barrett Foa.

Visit the official Web site here.

Xanadu or don’t

The Broadway production of Xanadu actually received some lovely reviews. Critics seemed astonished that they were compelled to write nice things about what is apparently a funny, enjoyable show.

Charles Isherwood in the New York Times started off his review: “Can a musical be simultaneously indefensible and irresistible? Why, yes it can.” He goes on to call the show “silly bliss” and quotes Douglas Carter Beane’s script (a line uttered by Tony Roberts as Zeus): “Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalog, throw it onstage and call it a show.”

Another good quote, this one uttered by Jackie Hoffman as the muse Calliope: “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people!”

The AP’s Michael Kuchwara has this to say about Xanadu, “the jaw-droppingly awful 1980 film that sank Olivia Newton-John’s movie career yet couldn’t kill roller disco, has been turned into a fast, funny little stage musical. Quite a transformation.”

And, helpfully, Kuchwara points out that leading man Cheyenne Jackson is “sporting the best thighs on Broadway” and that leading lady Kerry Butler “knows how to slyly snare a laugh.” More praise for comic actors Hoffman and Mary Testa, who apparently chew the scenery in good ways.

Joe Dziemianowicz writing in the New York Daily News says the show is a cure for summertime blues and is “90 minutes of souped-up silliness and broad comedy.”

Clive Barnes in the New York Post, giving the show one star out of four (headline: Xanadon’t), is not a fan of the show (and has never seen the movie), but says Beane’s book is “arch and camp, a fair example of the kitschy-sink school of writing, with a few decent quips in its shivering quiver.”

BroadwayWorld.com has a terrific video interview with Hoffman and Testa (and the sequence of clips at the end really offers a taste of the show. Watch the video here.

Xanadooo-ooo-ooo (now we are here)

Should we be taking it as an omen that the first big musical of the new theater season is Xanadu?

And is that a good omen or not?

A Theater Dogs spy who saw an early preview says it’s definitely a bad omen. And judging from the way cast members are literally falling out of the show, we might have to consider this not such an auspicious beginning.

Any musical that incorporates “Have You Never Been Mellow” into a musical has a problem. I’m smelling Saturday Night Fever all over again (the stage adaptation of course). Speaking of SNF, the star of that Broadway bomb, James Carpinello, was starring in Xanadu. Notice the verb “was.” But during one of the roller skating moments, Mr. Carpinello broke his anklein three places — in THREE PLACES — and had to be replaced by Cheyenne Jackson.

Now, all sympathy to Mr. Carpinello, but Mr. Jackson is, I’m sorry to say this Mr. Carpinello, a big improvement. Jackson, the erstwhile star of All Shook Up (somebody please get this man a GOOD show!) is a charismatic charmer, which is exactly what a show like Xanadu, a lame movie-to-stage adaptation beefed up with ’80s jukebox hits, desperately needs.

OK, time to come clean. I’ve held a grudge against Xanadu ever since the 1980 film came out. I bought the LP at the grocery store before I actually saw the movie and completely fell in love with it. Side 1 was Olivia Newton-John singing “Magic” and “Suddenly” (with Cliff Richard) and “Whenever You’re Away from Me” (with Gene Kelly), and Side 2 was ELO singing “All Over the World” and “I’m Alive” and, of course, the title song, with Ms. Newton-John. My favorite track was ONJ and the Tubes singing “Dancin’.” Her voice was over-dubbed to sound like a ’40s girl group, and her big-band song blended with the rockin’ Tubes song for one of the original mash-ups.

Then I saw the movie. In a word: blech. Even at 13 years old I knew trash when I saw it (and no cracks about Grease 2 here, that’s actually quality kitsch — there’s a difference). The movie didn’t match at all the brilliant piece of cinema I had crafted in my head while listening to the album (mostly Side 1, sorry ELO).

And now the movie has made metamorphosed into a Broadway show with a book by Douglas Carter Beane, who is not an untalented writer and is, in fact, pretty funny.

But the leading man roller skated his way out of the show, and another ensemble member just left with injuries. Let’s hope nothing happens to leading lady Kerry Butler (whom Bay Area audiences saw in The Opposite of Sex, the misguided musical at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre). The show opens July 10.

Let’s hope the camp factor is high and the derisive laughter low. “And now, open your eyes and see, what we have made is real. We are in Xanaduuuuuuuu.”

Check out the official Web site (which has ONJ on the musical loop) here.