“West Side Story” Triumphantly Retold at Hollywood Bowl

Solea Pfeiffer (Maria) and Jeremy Jordan (Tony) in "West Side Story" at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Few musicals, let alone any medium of expression, are as transcendent as “West Side Story.” From the moment it made its debut on Broadway in 1957, the Jerome Robbins-directed eternal masterpiece – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – has been presented on stage and referenced consistently in pop culture. And, frankly, it will continue to be for as long as humanity exists.

The "West Side Story" at the Bowl promotional poster, courtesy of the Hollywood Bowl

The promotional poster for “West Side Story” at the Bowl. Courtesy of the Hollywood Bowl

Suffice it to say, the love story of Tony and Maria, precariously enmeshed between the warring turmoil of the Jets and Sharks, is in many ways a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, who rebelled against their own allegiances, the Montagues and Capulets. “West Side Story” will always be required material for even the philistines of the world, not to mention those who haven’t been initiated yet. But for those who have experienced it since childhood – whether it be the 1961 Natalie Wood-led movie or the local community-theatre production – there might be some understandable jadedness about the monotony no matter how magical.

As a solution to this, the LA Philharmonic, in association with Music Theater International, found a way to reimagine the classic tragedy at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14th and 19th by focusing primarily on the music and acting, setting aside almost completely the choreography. Certainly, nobody would think, on paper, that removing “West Side Story” from its ingeniously choreographed elements would be a good idea, but in actual practice, it not only worked, but breathed new life into the venerable masterwork.

Gustavo Dudamel leads the LA Philharmonic Orchestra as it collectively plays Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" music. Photo courtesy of Hollywood Bowl

Gustavo Dudamel leads the LA Phil Orchestra as it collectively plays Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” music. Photo courtesy of Hollywood Bowl

On a stage that presided the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel front and center, with his back to a 17,500 capacity audience, sat the orchestra and behind them a no-frills elevated platform with a set of stairs on opposite sides. The message was loud and resonant – the performers’ elite prowess was going to be on display, eliciting the attention of all eyes with none to be spared on an otherwise grandiose set.

The rudimentary presentation made the evening feel, paradoxically, like an intimate one, notwithstanding the sea of admirers who indulged in the occasion or the fantastically familiar performers (though some more than others) who starred in it. Karen Olivo reprised her Tony Award-winning role as Anita from the 2009 Broadway revival and was as sassy and fiercely authentic as ever; Jennifer Sanchez, also a 2009 original, successfully rediscovered the comically naïve Rosalia. Matthew James Thomas, who played Pippin on Broadway, was the spirited leader of the the Jets (Riff); and, opposite him was the first Venezuelan to ever star in a Broadway musical, George Akram, as the reassured and resolute Bernardo – macho chief of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Solea Pfeiffer (Maria), Karen Olivo (Anita), and Jeremy Jordan (Tony) delivered flawless performances at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo credit: Joseph Marzullo, Monica Simoes &

Solea Pfeiffer (Maria), Karen Olivo (Anita), and Jeremy Jordan (Tony) delivered flawless performances at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo credit: Joseph Marzullo, Monica Simoes &

But, as good a production can be with a stellar supporting cast, it becomes legendary with marvelous lead performances to go with it. So, it should be no surprise, that this newfound, albeit risky, endeavor of “West Side Story” achieved greatness because its two leads, one renowned and the other a virtual unknown (until now), held nothing back on stage.

Unequivocally, Jeremy Jordan of “Supergirl” and “Newsies” fame mobilized a heart-lifting and wrenching vibrato, infused with raw emotion, for both of his solos as Tony in “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.” Jordan, as Tony, left not one doubt of his enduring love for Maria, exhausting his emotional palette to such a degree that empathizing with his character’s impassioned determination was unavoidable.

In order to die for love, though, as a man like Tony would be willing to do, the need for a Maria as lovable as life itself is necessary. The wet-behind-the-ears 2016 University of Michigan graduate, Solea Pfeiffer, who looks like a cross between Selena Gomez and Jessica Alba, not only imbued Maria with a tender desirability, but sang darlingly dipped arrows of operatic mellifluousness into the coarsest of hearts in “Tonight” and “Somewhere.”

Pfeiffer – along with fellow newcomer Julia Bullock, who raised the hairs off every arm during her rousing vocal performance as A Girl during the intervening “Somewhere” Ballet – proved herself as an individual capable of commitment to the highest caliber of craft. Flanked by revered veterans of the music and theater realms, Pfeiffer helped turn a dicey undertaking into a memorable reimagining of a timeless tale.

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