This new West Side Story, the first American-based recording to appear since DG’s star-studded 1985 composer-conducted version, blessedly avoids that earlier production’s operatic pretensions, returning instead to the work’s Broadway roots by using young, theatrically trained singers with some genuine acting ability. Even with that, it’s probably wishful thinking to expect that this cast (fine as it is) can recreate the vibrant, raw freshness and scintillating brilliance of the original. Mike Eldred’s Tony comes off best; singing with a more mature sound than Larry Kert, he nonetheless creates a sense of heightened expectancy and wonder in “Something’s Coming”. As Maria, Betsi Morrison struggles to maintain an authentic-sounding Puerto Rican accent, but she sings beautifully throughout, especially in “Tonight” and “I Have a Love”. I’m afraid Marianne Cook’s Anita is no match for Chita Rivera’s, but she communicates the character’s feelings convincingly enough. The remainder of the ensemble consists of good, solid, legit voices, but a lot has changed on Broadway since 1957: the overall style of singing, with its occasionally overemphatic declamation (as in “A Boy Like That” and “Cool”) makes clear how years of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals have influenced American performers.
This recording utilizes Bernstein’s score in its original form, before it underwent the necessary revisions to make it more suitable to the needs of musical theater at the time. Actually, it sounds pretty much the same, the most obvious distinctions being a few missing bars near the end of the Prologue and the different vocal arrangement for “America”.
Kenneth Schermerhorn was studying with Bernstein during the creation of West Side Story and briefly was considered as a possible conductor for the premiere. Finally getting his chance nearly 50 years later, Schermerhorn conducts the score with an authority and enthusiasm that reveals his intimate knowledge and personal conviction, even if at times his tempos drag (as in “I feel pretty” and “Gee Officer Krupke”), though not as much as the elderly Bernstein’s. Then there’s the somewhat obsessive concern with full note values at the expense of rhythmic flow (as in the “Jet Song”, and in “Quintet”, with its heavy articulation on the word “tonight”) that occasionally robs the music of its spontaneity.
Throughout, the Nashville Symphony plays with an ideal blend of symphonic elegance and jazzy swagger that shows why this work is such a wonderful classic. Only the multimiked and obviously studio-bound recording, with its artificially close voices, slightly disappoints. Yet despite this and the above-noted concerns, this production faithfully recreates the magical and enthralling world that is West Side Story, and anyone coming to this piece afresh is in for a rare and special experience. [11/4/2002]