About last night- West Side Story

Arriving at my building after midnight, something I rarely do anymore, I entered the lobby and the night watchman said to me, "May I speak with you for a moment?"

"Sure, what about?" I replied.

"Your former girlfriend is in the building- the one who's not supposed to be here," he said, tapping the small list of people who've been banned from entering the 20-story former hotel, "she came in with another resident."

An especially nasty thought crossed my mind. This was so like her. Then I realized what was really going on. "Are you talking about Isabella or Thais?"

"I don't know- the one with the dark hair." That wasn't helpful- they both have dark hair. Most of them have had dark hair, including the insane one who actually moved into the building - a bouquet of black dahlias.

The physical resemblance between the two women is strong- they're the same height, build, both have black hair and striking eyes, though their eyes couldn't be more different. But to a casual observer or acquaintance it's only in talking with them one might get the sense of how different they actually are- one essentially kind, the other needlessly cruel.

The most obvious identifier is their hair- Isabella's is short, giving her a glamourous aura reminiscent of certain Italian film stars of the 50's and early 60's . Thais' hair is long, and as Penelope once said to me she looks "expensive." These marked differences aside, there were numerous times I would be out with one and could see the question on people's faces as they were trying figure out which one was present. That always made me uneasy.

But one of Isabella's best friends also lives in the building, so it wouldn't be at all unusual or unexpected for her to be here and I asked the night watchman if this was whom she had come in with and he affirmed this to be the case. Relieved, I went upstairs, though it always trips me out a little bit when I know Isabella is six floors directly beneath me.

The timing was ironic given that I was returning from my first date with Margarita, a woman I'd recently met, and I was quite pleased with how the evening had gone- it felt like I was finally moving on from the tumult of the past five years, only to arrive home and be told it was on my doorstep once again.

Margarita and I went to hear the San Francisco Symphony perform West Side Story, the final program of the season and one I've been looking forward to ever since I saw its appearance on the schedule. Ending the season with something large and theatrical has become something of an unofficial tradition of the Symphony's and it seems to me MTT keeps upping the ante- next year will be a semi-staged version of Britten's opera Peter Grimes, but this particular program held out special promise given the material and the conductor's relationship with the composer.

The entryway had signs announcing the performance was going to be recorded, and usually these ask the audience to be quiet for that reason. I didn't actually notice if the signs posted last night had that request on them, but the audience applauded after every number and there was much murmuring throughout- I think it just goes with the territory, as the audience had what appeared to be a significant contingent of people who were more likely to attend the theater rather than the concert hall (all in all I think this is a good thing).

The hall was packed, and distracted by Margarita, I ended up misreading our seat numbers, much to the apparent annoyance of Allan Ulrich, but when we did sit down and settle in I was surprised by the battery of percussion on the stage. I had never before thought about how much the percussion actually drives this score, but it does, and on this night at least (see Josh Kosman's review for another take), the percussion section kept the orchestra tightly reigned in when it should it have been driving them hard, which of course was most noticeable during the dance scene, during which the Mambo just didn't gel at all. It made me think back to the recent performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, featuring pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin and conducted by David Robertson, which I found wholly lacking the jazz elements vital to making it really succeed, and taking both performances into account I think the orchestra can play, but it doesn't swing. And that's a shame, because Bernstein's music, especially in the first half, really needs a certain swagger to launch it from great into extraordinary.

And it is an extraordinary score. I once read, I think in Sir Denis Forman's delightful book A Night at the Opera, that if you don't like La Boheme you don't like opera, and I think the same can be said for West Side Story and the American musical. Not only is the music superb throughout, but the 1-2-3 punch of three of the greatest songs ever written- "Maria"/"America"/"Tonight" makes me wonder how anyone can't like it. I once had the pleasure of introducing the movie to two little girls, and they ended up playing the "America" scene endlessly. One of my favorite memories is sitting with their mother in my kitchen listening to those two girls nail every part of that song from the living room, squeal with delight, then do it all over again.

Speaking of nailing the song, Cheyenne Jackson's turn as Tony didn't work for me- there were a couple of lower notes he just couldn't nail despite repeated attempts, made all the more apparent by having the singers [unfortunately] amplified (had they gone with opera singers rather than theater singers I wonder if this would have been necessary), and though he looked the part and sang his lines with conviction, there was a lack of passion in his delivery which caused me to notice his limited range and straightforward delivery.  Alexandra Silber's Maria was pleasing to hear, but she also lacked the ability to convey a deep connection with the character. I wonder how much this is due to having the singers perform from behind the orchestra rather than in front of it, which completely undermined last year's performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle. From a singer's standpoint I can see how challenging it must be to connect with an audience separated by a small army of musicians in front of you, rather than beneath or behind.

Jessica Vosk's smoldering Anita, looking hot in a fitted red dress, looked like she wanted to really bust out during "America" but the song was unfortunately only minimally choreographed, and it was here that I found myself questioning if this work could be a complete success without the dancing, since so much of one's original experience with it is the fantastic work of Jerome Robbins, which was a part of the original design and not a secondary element to the score. For some, West Side Story is as much about the dancing as it is the music and without both it feels incomplete. For the most part the omission wasn't a bad decision, and likely a necessary one- MTT easily made a case for the music on its own merits, but at moments like this it definitely felt like watching Gone With The Wind in black and white.

The best vocal performance of the evening, actually the best moment of the entire concert, one so flawlessly delivered you could feel it resonate in the audience as it unfolded, was Julia Bullock's "Somewhere."  More of her please, at both Davies and across the street.

Refusing to be hobbled by the percussion section, the rest of the orchestra performed well (as was the case with the others singers and members of the chorus as Sharks and Jets) with an exceptional turn from the brass section led by Mark Inouye. MTT's pacing couldn't be faulted for drawing attention to nuances, but they came at the expense of delivering a vibrancy I for one would have appreciated. The audience clearly loved it- the performers received a sustained and exuberant standing ovation. There may be some tickets left for the remaining performances through Tuesday night and I recommend you get one if you can. Overall MTT, the orchestra, and the cast deliver handsomely even if they don't reach the heights one imagines they could and have before with similarly ambitious programs.

We hung around for a while afterwards for the final Davies After Hours event of the season, but spent most of it on the eastern 2nd tier balcony looking at City Hall, beautifully lit in rainbow colors while a steady stream of slow-moving headlights created a river of white light streaming in front of it. I really can't tell you much about what was going on inside. My attention was somewhere else.

Top photo: Julia Bullock.