If only we could all dance our differences away.
West Side Story, a collaboration among Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents that premiered in 1957, tells a story of warring tribes but demands artists with a diverse mastery of singing, dancing, acting and—of course—finger snapping. Houston Grand Opera’s presentation of the celebrated work, directed by Francesca Zambello, manages a few of these combinations but falls short of the total package.
Take tenor Norman Reinhardt, who played the quixotic role of Tony. Reinhardt is an accomplished and flexible singer who last appeared at HGO as Lensky in the 2015 production of Eugene Onegin. His opening serenade “Something’s Coming” resonated smooth and sweet in a classic musical style centuries removed from Tckaikovsky’s high opera. But, at no fault of the talented Julio Monge’s choreography direction, the man may have a voice of flaxen timbre, but he cannot dance.
In the role of Maria, soprano Andrea Carroll balanced the demands of her role better. Another familiar face on HGO’s stage, Carroll has a remarkably pure upper range, a charismatic stage presence, and she knows how to move, but Reinhardt often overpowered her in duets, particularly when she sunk into a lower range where her voice lost its bell-like clarity and took on a huskier edge.
When the musical first premiered, those in charge cast the roles almost exclusively with dancing ability in mind. Gabrielle McClinton, who played Anita, would surely have fallen in those ranks. A vibrant dancer and dynamic actor, McClinton visually captivated—but her vibrato casts a wide net across pitches, and favorite numbers like “America” and “A Boy like That” were buried by a campy Puerto Rican accent. On the other end of the accent spectrum, baritone Brian Vu enunciated far beyond his Jets pedigree, belying his fine operatic training.
It can be hard to make a musical about high school kids not look like a high school production while still hitting that nostalgic sweet spot. With a clean palette of gray, blue, and red, set designer Peter J. Davison set a nice tone, lit as best as he could in the make-shift Resilience Theater by lighting designer Mark McCullough. As has been the case this whole season, it is difficult to say what would have been possible in the Wortham, what was a consequence of making do, and what was going to be a problem no matter what. I imagine the giant discarded letters from Broadway signs past, the gold tinsel hanging from the basketball hoop, and the rotating towers of brick framing the stage wouldn’t be able to shake the kitsch in any scenario.
At the podium set stage right, Timothy Myers led the orchestra from his legs, bending at the knees and popping his fingers to cue the exceptional percussion section that happily pulled off Bernstein’s distinctive rhythms. He did a remarkable job holding things together across the expanse of the theater during the iconic “I feel pretty” especially.
It’s a treat to experience so much dance at the opera, and combined with Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics and Myers leading the orchestra through music that has, since its premiere, become so beloved, it’s easy to make allowances for those singers who can’t dance, those dancers who can’t sing, and a bit of an overwrought set. This production may not be able to dance their differences away, but it offers tender moments when those differences fade into memory.
Thru May 6. Tickets from $25. Resilience Theater at George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.