BBC Proms 2018: West Side Story review - universally familiar, yet still as freshly youthful and morally urgent as ever
Although Leonard Bernstein’s centenary has produced a certain amount of carping and even sneering in relation to his ambitious symphonies and oratorios, nobody is denying that his contribution to musical theatre - a category embracing miniature opera (Trouble in Tahiti), expansive operetta (Candide, in all its iterations) and pure Broadway pizzazz (On the Town) – is of the highest rank.
And then there is the masterly West Side Story, now 61 years old and universally familiar, yet still as freshly youthful and morally urgent – as we are discovering to our cost, knife crime among gangs of urban kids isn’t a problem that has gone away, even if the hep-cat vocabulary they use in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics now seems merely quaint.
For this Proms version, Arthur Laurents’ spoken text had been reduced to a minimum and the plot was only sketchily conveyed, leaving the tragic climax almost ludicrously abrupt. Much of the sensational impact of the original 1957 production came from Jerome Robbins’ thrillingly slick choreography: this element was entirely absent here, though the Jets and Sharks were appropriately kitted out in skinny jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, giving a vague sense of the James Dean era and its nervous obsession with the teenager.
In a deadeningly dreary spirit of political correctness that denies the very foundation of the art of acting, the American singer Sierra Boggess felt obliged earlier this year to withdraw from the role of Hispanic Maria on the grounds of her Caucasian ethnicity. Deplorably, the Proms management seems to have cravenly accepted this nonsensical gesture of inverted racism: perhaps we will next be told that only Romanies need apply to play Carmen.
Rant aside, Boggess’ place was very creditably taken by Mikaela Bennett ("a native of Ottawa," according to the programme, but with skin of Latina hue). Singing with virginal sweetness and purity, she tugged at the heart-strings in "One hand, one heart" and "I Have a Love". Her Tony was Ross Lekites, on furlough from Frozen on Broadway. With his light high baritone and ingenuous manner, he was ideally stylish – in other words, not over-emphatically operatic.
Eden Espinosa made much of the sarcasm in Anita’s two numbers, and five ebullient Jets went to town with "Gee, Officer Krupke" – a whip-smart piece of rhyming satire that W S Gilbert would surely have admired. Louise Alder was the seraphic soloist in "Somewhere"; well-drilled students from Mountview and ArtsEd provided a responsive chorus.
John Wilson conducted his own orchestra with his customary flair and energy – the street scenes were as snappy as a flick-knife, while the more intimate episodes glowed with romantic ardour. But oh the ghastly amplification, generating a level of futile din that completely obscured the intricate counterpoint of the “Tonight” ensemble and left me wishing I had brought some ear plugs. Why, oh why, did Wilson not insist that Bernstein be shown more respect and instruct the wonks to turn the dials down a couple of notches?