Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim West Side Story Review

Soundtrack. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

This is certainly a work that is worth celebrating and getting to know.

Michael Quinn 2007

Few musicals straddle the much-contested divide between music theatre and opera as confidently and persuasively as Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a star-making, career-breaking reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

This new recording from the crossover division of Universal Classics marks the 50th anniversary of the work’s debut on Broadway and shies away from the operatic leanings of Bernstein’s compellingly crafted, adrenaline-driven music. Instead, it surfs along on sassily conceived but thinly woven textures, choosing to put its faith in opera-lite Kiwi starlet Haley Westenra and emerging Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo.

Bernstein himself maintained that the most difficult aspect of this seminal work was casting, and so it proves here. As Maria, Westenra sings with sweet innocence and passably pleasing musicality, but her tendency to hug the top end of her voice imbues everything with a helium-filled, wobble-afflicted fluting sound that feels more Hampstead than Hell’s Kitchen.

Rapport with her fellow star-crossed lover, Vittorio Grigolo’s Tony, is conspicuous only by its sorry absence. Grigolo has heartthrob looks and sings with puppy-dog charm but not always with great diction, the echoes of José Carreras unfortunately calling to mind the near-disaster of Bernstein’s own monumentally miscast recording of the work in 1984.

Melanie Marshall’s rather clumsily approximated Anita seems as miscast as Westenra, while Connie Fisher’s cavernously-recorded cameo in what should have been a show-stealing rendition of “Somewhere” is curiously unsatisfying. Just as disappointing is the job lot ensemble that make the hardened street-gang chorus sound decidedly camp.

Bernstein’s staggeringly inventive music is played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with conviction, if never quite the full palette of colours, and occasionally lacks the necessary punch and pizzazz. Even so, the material still shines through, and reminds you that in a good recording (try John Owen Edwards’ complete version on That’s Entertainment Records) this is certainly a work that is worth celebrating and getting to know, albeit, perhaps, not with this recording.

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