Something’s coming

This is a review of the musical West Side Story staged by Stages Productions at the Meralco Theater. The performance took place at the Meralco Theater on 5 September 2008 at 8:30 p.m., and starred Christian Bautista as Tony and Joanna Ampil as Maria. The play was directed by Marilou Lauchengco-Vera and music provided by the PhilharmoniKa orchestra, conducted by Gerard Salonga.

The musical is based on the 1981 Philippine staging, which is based in part on the 1961 film directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Some of the songs in the film are reordered from the 1957 Broadway original production, as is in the current Philippine production.

I am listening to the soundtrack of the film version of West Side Story tonight as I’m writing this. I have seen the film several times, first as a kid (probably eight) who barely understood it. It is still one of the best musicals for me, because musically, it still has its charms. And it was indeed a pace-setter; I would say that a Bat Boy or a Rent would not have been possible without West Side confronting issues like racism, poverty, criminal delinquency, and social disparities. This is set amidst brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins and, of course, Leonard Bernstein’s incidental music and songs with lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. 

However, I have only seen West Side on stage once before 5 September, when our high school batch was required to watch an earlier staging at the same theater (Meralco) about thirteen or fourteen years ago. It featured a staging that was faithful to the original libretto; the key is how “Somewhere,” the musical’s big hit song, is performed therein. In the original, which was done in the first production I saw, it was sung by a voice off-stage. The current production, which is based on a 1981 revival which my dad saw, features “Somewhere” sung as a ballet in a dream sequence, which is based on how Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins staged it in the movie version.

I must admit that I was excited about this. When Minnie Fong, representing the cancer charity Kythe, sent out word that they would be sponsoring the opening night, I did not hesitate to let her know. But what made me really look forward to this production was a clip I saw, of Leonard Bernstein himself conducting Jose Carreras and Dame Kiri te Kanawa in “One Hand, One Heart.” This made me pay attention to what was important: the music.

Because, after all, as two of my friends and I discussed this morning, it indeed would be difficult to put a celebrity like Christian Bautista alongside the likes of Joanna Ampil, a veteran of the Philippine Opera Company. The disparity is indeed noticeable; while Bautista is a good singer, getting the cadences and volume changes of, say, “Something’s Coming,” right, I noted that he lacks the edge needed to be a good Tony, a Romeo role which involves the right amount of grit at the right moment. To his credit, his duets with Joanna Ampil were among the better musical moments of the night.

My first big flush of praise is for the show’s Maria, Joanna Ampil. She was one of the most consistent performers of the evening. She played Maria with energy and youthful vigor, and yes, I think she could match Natalie Wood’s performance in the film. And she exuded the right amount of naivete to play the role, which is based on Juliet, herself quite a young character.

Of course, the chief technical problem of the night was the sound system. The microphones weren’t working properly during Act One, especially those of the ensemble, thus making their contributions inaudible. And in Act Two, the scene with “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” was marred by static from the microphones. I wonder if the problems have been fixed by yesterday night, but I am sure that they would. (Those watching future showings, please tell me.)

But I would save the highest amount of praise for the musicians, led by Gerard Salonga. I was told that he offered to conduct this without charge, and I would admit it would be a huge honor to do one of the best scores of an American musical in the 20th century. And they did justice to the score. In fact, thanks to the Bernstein clip, I listened intently to all the elements, vocal and instrumental, in “One Hand, One Heart,” and I should say, by George, I think they got it! In fact, I took to listening to the orchestra when I could not bear the technical problems.

My recommendation? I would like readers to watch it. It is understandable that in order to sell a musical ‘round these parts, one must have a marquee name not necessarily connected to the world of theater, but one must watch it because of what it has to offer: a feast for our eyes and ears. Especially the ears.

Better yet, I urge you not to watch it alone. It is the sort of play that makes you want to talk to your companion during the interval and right after. And I am grateful that I had a friend who was also into musicals and gladly shared this night with me.

A final word: I suspect that a fifth of the audience that night have not even seen the 1961 Academy Award ™ winning film, so they may realize by now that “I Feel Pretty,” sung as part of Adam Sandler’s therapy in Anger Management, is from West Side Story. A new generation of theater-goers will hopefully get to enjoy this play, and for that I am very grateful to the producers.

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