Review: ‘West Side Story’ at Opera San Jose (**)

Maira (Teresa Castillo) and Tony (Noah Stewart) in Opera San Jose’s Production of “West Side Story.” Photo Credit: David Allen.

by Otto Coelho

In 1984, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert version of his famed West Side Story,” starring Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras. I remember watching behind the scenes footage of some of the rehearsals on PBS. Bernstein didn’t know it, but he was furthering a debate that has followed the famed musical ever since: Is West Side Story” musical theatre, or is it opera? Before seeing the opening night performance at Opera San Jose, I would have fought to my last breath to call it musical theatre. There were performances Saturday night that have started to change my mind.

Inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” West Side Story” takes the tale of star-crossed lovers from Italy during the Renaissance, and resets the action in the 1950s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. The grand themes of the piece—the war-torn neighborhood, the societal rift between the two gangs who share a common socio-economic reality, and the seeming impossibility that love can exist in that environment are all ripe for opera, and for the most part the company handles them well. It seems that some of the songs in the piece beg for a more musical theatre style, and the cast does well with them. The “Tonight Quintet” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” crackle with the–for want of better words–less formal style of singing that are much more akin to musical theatre. The sound is more brassy, and it fits better with the music.

The more formal, operatic numbers, such as “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” are handled gloriously by the excellent and engaging Noah Stewart as Tony. Stewart is glorious, and his energy and zeal has the audience completely on his side as soon as he opens his mouth. His voice is astoundingly wonderful. I would pay the price of admission just to watch him act and sing again. Stewart was not alone in encouraging me to think of “West Side Story” as an opera. Teresa Castillo has the voice of an angel, and handles Maria’s hope for a different and better life with great aplomb. Whether in duet with Tony in “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” or with Anita in “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love” or singing “I Feel Pretty,” accompanied by Rosalia, Francisca and Consuelo (the excellent Christine Caputo-Shulman, Cristina Hernandez, and Erin Rose), Castillo is captivating. Natalie Rose Havens is a standout as Anita, Maria’s would-be future sister-in-law. Havens’ singing style deftly straddles the line between operatic and musical theatre. Her turns in “America,” (along with Rosalia (Caputo-Shulman) and the Shark Girls), “A Boy Like That” and “Tonight” are lovely, and her acting is superb. As Officer Krupke, Lance LaShelle handles himself well. The orchestra, conducted by Christopher James Ray, plays the music beautifully.

Trevor Martin does well as Riff, but his singing is a bit formal for Riff’s combination of intensity and laid back attitude—especially in “The Jet Song” and “Cool.” Doc (Philip Skinner) and Lieutenant Schrank (Michael P Mendelsohn) have voices of great projection and formal tone, but lack the necessary realism. Some of the Jets were  disengaged—especially during the scene at Doc’s when Anita is accosted. It seemed like the dance numbers needed a bit more rehearsal—the men just didn’t have it all together, and the women were a bit stiff, especially in “The Dance at the Gym.” The fight scenes were unconvincing—non-contact slaps and punches are fine as long as they give the illusion of contact. Audience sight lines and angles clearly weren’t taken into consideration and punches were feet away from their targets. Some choices made by director Crystal Manich were puzzling—especially her decision to leave Maria kneeling next to Tony at the end during the music that Bernstein wrote for the Sharks and the Jets to bear Tony’s body away. Tony’s death ends the war between the gangs and the piece ends with hope. But Maria was left kneeling for what seemed forever, and It seemed awkward to me. Scenic Designer Steven C. Kemp’s sets are terrific and work well. The lighting design by Sarah Riffle tends to set the mood, but is far too shadowy most of the time to do what theatre lighting is supposed to do—light the performers.

In short, this is an uneven production. It has a lot going for it, with some excellent performances. But there were also some some flaws that really hampered the experience.

And on the question, is “West Side Story” a musical or an opera: I’d say, why can’t it be both?

West Side Story” continues at the California Theatre in San Jose through May 1st. For futher information click here.

Rating: ** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“West Side Story.” Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Produced by Opera San Jose. Director: Crystal Manich. Conductor: Christopher James Ray. Choreographer: Michael Pappalardo. Scenic Designer: Steven C. Kemp. Lighting Designer: Sarah Riffle. Costume Designer: Linda Pisano. Hair and Makeup Designer: Christina Martin. Sound Designer: Tom Johnson


Maria: Teresa Castillo. Tony: Noah Stewart. Anita: Natalie Rose Havens. Riff: Trevor Martin. Bernardo: Anthony Sanchez. Chino: Jared V. Esguerra. The Jets: Action: Jawan Jenkins. A-Rab: Nick Rodrigues. Baby John: Joshua Hughes. Snowboy: Jack “Junior” Swartz. Big Deal: Sydney Strong. Diesel: Taylor Simmons. Gee-Tar: Ryan Byrne. Mouthpiece: Jim Ballard. Tiger: James Santiago The Sharks: Pepe: Timothy Matthew Flores. Indio: Dario Rodriguez-Jackson. Luis: Michael J. Kuo. Anxious: Nicolas Vasquez-Gerst. Nibbles: Erick Aguirre. Juano: Aaron Brown. Toro: Augusto Silva. Moose: Lino César Vásquez. Jet Girls: Anybodys: Leandra Ramm. Graziella: Mariah Rose. Velma: Tracy Fuller. Minnie: Gaby Catipon. Clarice: Hollie Rudolph. Pauline: Karen Law. Shark Girls: Rosalia: Christine Capuito-Shulman. Francisca: Cristina Hernandez. Consuelo: Erin Rose. Teresita: Samantha Mills. Estella: Vanessa Spiteri. Margarita: Elise Holmes. A Girl: Natalia Santaliz. The Adults: Doc: Philip Skinner. Schrank: Michael P. Mendelsohn. Krupke: Lance Lashelle. Glad Hand: Dan Galpin.

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