Philadelphia Orchestra 'West Side Story' has its limits - but it also has the best 'I Feel Pretty' ever

David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic

Updated: Friday, October 13, 2017, 11:33 AM

Isabel Leonard (at far right in red dress) delivered an exceptional “I Feel Pretty” in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s semi-staged production of “West Side Story.”

West Side Story has such a ruggedly uncompromising identity that only so much of it was transferable from its usual Broadway-theater environment to the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, where the Philadelphia Orchestra opened a series of four semi-staged performances on Thursday.

The orchestra was appropriately cut down to a lean, mean 60 or so players to evoke the streets of 1950s Manhattan, where low-life gangs and newly arrived Puerto Ricans battle for territory that doesn’t really belong to either. But as a presenting organization, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association delivered a significant event.

A stage was built behind the orchestra where the amplified singers — a mixture of Broadway and operatic voices — sang the great Leonard Bernstein music with resourceful direction by Kevin Newbury. Action was suggested more than actually executed and employed in places where the accompanying music needs explaining.

How to create a gang war on a limited patch of Verizon Hall stage? Newbury’s version resembled a rock concert mosh pit, with Sharks and Jets periodically clustering then dispersing to leave a dead body. I’ll take it.

Red stage chairs delineated Puerto Rican territory, and black ones belonged to the Americans. Dialogue and dance was minimal. The ending is problematic: Bernstein admitted to struggling endlessly to give Maria a final aria but just couldn’t produce it. Thus, as staged without the buildup that comes with a full libretto, the ending wasn’t going to have the usual climactic impact.

So, was this semi-staged West Side Story worth doing anyway? Yes.

The story, lyrics, and music are so embedded in our culture that what was missing dramatically could easily be filled in by most adults in the audience. Advantages included better appreciation of Bernstein’s melodic links from song to song. The often-cut mid-section of “The Jets Song” looks forward to the “Dance at the Gym,” for example.

Most important, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a special relationship with this music, not just for what it is, but for what it says. In fact, he inserted a dramatic silence into the show-stopper “(I like to be in) America” that spotlighted the lyrics, “Immigrant goes to America, many hellos in America, nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.”

Musically, Nézet-Séguin knows what’s needed. “Dance at the Gym” can often sound like striptease music; instead, he made it strut — more in keeping with the psychological one-upsmanship going on in the scene. Never was the music airbrushed. In fact, Nézet-Séguin made you hear every harmonic dissonance in a score that has plenty of them. That slightly out-of-sync quality in the street-scene music became more pronounced by the end of the first act, when this urban civilization is at a breaking point. In contrast, the clear, clean, in-sync love music was all the more powerful.

What might’ve been the least-appropriate voice — that of thoroughly operatic Isabel Leonard — was a major reason to be there. Her deeply colored Latin tone eloquently lined up behind the lyrics. You wouldn’t expect such a tone-heavy voice to nail lighter moments, such as “I Feel Pretty,” but she did — in the best rendition of that song I’ve ever heard.

The biggest casting challenge is the leading man: The role of Tony requires a stratospheric vocal range and selfless ensemble acting. Ryan Silverman had voice, presence, conviction — but with affectations that undercut his scenes. One doesn’t sing this music; one lives it. Silverman was about strategy, with his aggressive vowels and fussy phrasing seeming inauthentic and ultimately grating as he nearly drowned out Leonard in duets.

Among the men, Timothy McDevitt as Riff was the model for balancing a street-talk attitude with good singing. As Anita, Isabel Santiago had plenty of voice and presence, but almost upstaged herself with her slinky turquoise gown. So more than enough West Side Story made itself felt in these uptown circumstances. But next time the orchestra plays a Broadway show, Bernstein’s Candide would arrive with more of itself intact.

Isabel Santiago (center, in turquoise gown) as Anita in the Philadelphia Orchestra's semi-staged production of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, Thursday Oct. 12, 2017. (PHILDELPHIA ORCHESTRA)

The Philadelphia Orchestra's semi-staged performance of Leonard Bernstein's musical is repeated Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic

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