HGO's West Side Story Offers a Well-Sung, if Less Than Edgy Tony

Norman Reinhardt sang the Tony role with aplomb
Norman Reinhardt sang the Tony role with aplomb Photo by Lynn Lane

When the posh denizens of Manhattan's upper east side need a gang leader, let it be tenor Norman Reinhardt.

Never has the role of Tony in the Broadway classic West Side Story (1957) sounded so fine, been so lovingly sung, been heard to such advantage. In Houston Grand Opera's co-production of Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents/Jerome Robbins' masterpiece, Reinhardt crafts each Bernstein song with those gem-like Stephen Sondheim lyrics as if it were a Schubert lieder.

In his driving first act solo, “Something's Coming,” listen how he shapes his hopes for a better future, his timbre rising and falling away with every Bernstein thrum of anticipation, every word distinct and clear. It's a master class in enunciation and superb matching of words to music. Then, of course, there's the perennial standard “Maria,” Tony's paean to love-at-first sight. You've never heard this love song so sweetly crooned, so heartfelt, so infused with radiance. And his soaring duet with Maria (soprano Andrea Carroll), “One Hand, One Heart,” is achingly tinged with young love's longing.

Tony once led the Jets, those bad boys prowling near NYC's Hell's Kitchen. They're not about to cede an inch of filthy sidewalk to the rival Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang who's encroaching on their turf. It's war – racial, cultural, social – in all its ugly manifestations. The Irish cops, with their own set of stony prejudices, hate both groups of juvenile delinquents. Not for a moment do we believe Reinhardt ever brandished a shiv, brass knuckles, or a fist. He's too nice, too doughy, a bit too old to be struck by first-love's thunderbolt. As gorgeous as his voice is – and it is plummy and single-malt smooth – he cannot convince us he's ever been bad. He's ripe for Gounod's swooning Romeo, but Bernstein's romancer requires a harder edge. There's no danger in him. He's much too clean.

Now, this isn't entirely Reinhardt's fault. Tony's written as a patsy, a fall guy who finds love behind enemy lines. The authors surround him with a picaresque assortment of thugs and psychos to show where he's come from. But he's still a softie underneath. His past and fate will catch up with him, as it does with Shakespeare's original dreamer: a romantic hero who makes love not war and winds up a casualty of both.

Andrea Carroll (one of the indelible water-logged nymphs in HGO's Ring cycle, Julie Jordan in Carousel, child bride in A Little Night Music) possesses a dark and silvery voice, but there's no disguising she's an opera singer, first and foremost. Those rotund vowels, that shimmery tone, the posture. She's a great pretender. Fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico? I don't think so.

Bernstein & Company overlay the Bard with plenty of juice. Blessed by incandescence, West Side Story's music is incomparable. Bernstein never again matched its rhythmic pulse, ethereal abandon, or gritty realism. His love songs are like arias, while his music for the vicious rumbles, flirty mambos, and character numbers (“I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”) are propulsive, show-stopping, and entirely distinctive. This is Ur-Bernstein.

Director/choreographer Robbins surpassed himself – no easy thing after On the Town, The King and I, The Cage, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, The Concert. His dance numbers dazzled Broadway.

For HGO's production, choreographer Julio Monge revives Robbins' originals and makes the movement fresh and startling. When the gangs advance to the footlights in that signature stride – arm raised, opposite leg extended sideways – we believe this is exactly how young hoodlums might move, full of buoyancy, ballsy ego, showoff pride.

The ensemble gathered for HGO's production is a who's who from regional touring and Broadway. Standouts in the cast include fiery Gabrielle McClinton (Anita), muscular Connor McRory (Action), spiky DJ Petrosino (Bernardo), earthy Zoie Reams (Rosalia). Maestro Timothy Myers conducts with a bit less fire and brilliance than expected and never quite finds Bernstein's brass. Veteran director Francesca Zambello (HGO's The Little Prince, Show Boat, Florencia en el Amazonas, Billy Budd, Madame Butterfly; Broadway's The Little Mermaid), overlays a steady drumbeat to the gang warfare but cedes a much looser hand during the intimate scenes. Peter J. Davison's impressionistic set design uses tenement fire escapes, water towers, chain link fences, and industrial barge work to ground the grimy action, while Jessica Jahn's colorful costumes pop and flounce, adding vibrant personality.

The production looks great, is beautifully danced and lustily sung, yet ultimately comes up short.

Perhaps I'm an insufferable snob because I think “musicals” are meant for TUTS or Broadway Across America, and “operas” are meant for HGO or Opera in the Heights. (Although OH's exceptional production of Bernstein's operatic musical comedy Candide [written simultaneously with WWS] proves me wrong on so many levels.)

The iconic works of Broadway masters Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, rival the iconic works of classical masters Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. If opera companies need to poach the Broadway musical to make a buck, so be it. As Sondheim says, Just play it cool, boy, real cool.

West Side Story continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 1; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3; 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 4; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 6 at Houston Grand Opera, Resilience Hall, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida De Las Americas. Sung in English with projected text. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$245.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover