To celebrate what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th-birthday, the Proms presented the one musical revival to which John Wilson was unlikely to bring substantial revelations. The engagement of the LSO was fair warning, although guest-leader John Mills is no stranger to Wilson’s own famously superior scratch orchestra. Here was 2018’s incarnation of the band with which in 1992 Michael Tilson Thomas premiered and recorded something which, though by no means identical, also billed itself a “concert version”. MTT’s cast included so many famous names that I won’t list them all. Suffice to say that memories of Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Samuel Ramey and the rest were never going to be trumped by Wilson’s crudely over-miked line-up.
The conductor’s Proms rendition of a complete-ish West Side Story proved controversial because it dispensed almost entirely with Arthur Laurents’s book and left us with no idea of Jerome Robbins’s choreography. Those critics who seemed not to understand that we were attending a concert performance in a hall whose size dwarfs any stage action for the bulk of the audience may have preferred this stagier yet thoroughly one-dimensional On the Town. Interval included, the event lasted just over two hours, a peculiar half-way house. There was much more stage movement though no lighting to speak of, more too in the way of text and narration, as belatedly entrusted to Kerry Shale (MTT had the then surviving two-thirds of the show’s creative team to fulfil that function). But then it’s usually the composer’s estate that makes the rules on these matters. Aficionados will have noted the absence of ‘Ain't got no tears left’, the best number dropped from the stage show which the thrifty composer later incorporated into his Second Symphony. MTT had Cleo Laine sing that! Inexplicably the familiar Hollywood movie of On The Town retained only three original songs and some connective orchestral tissue based on numbers otherwise dropped, excising even the sublime ‘Some Other Time’. Sad to say its deeply poignant content barely registered in this cartoonish revival.
That the night worked at all was a tribute to the quality of the playing and conducting. Wilson held it all together as might have been anticipated, favouring his usual brisk tempos at the expense of languorous nostalgia or maximally idiomatic swing. Howard McGill’s charismatic saxophone was crucial in somehow finding the space to express deeper emotions (he has recently recorded Richard Rodney Bennett’s Concerto for Stan Getz with the maestro). But then the moody clarinet-playing from two LSO regulars was not far behind. It was the stage direction of the experienced Martin Duncan which puzzled; broad brush for the big barn perhaps but eliminating what subtlety there is in the material so that its capacity to move as opposed simply to entertain resided exclusively in those orchestral interludes.
The singers, West End and Broadway veterans of such shows as Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Wicked, were enthusiastic, ceaselessly mobile participants but generally small of voice. The Gabey of Nathanial Hackmann, Curly in Wilson’s semi-staged Oklahoma! last year, fared well in his mellifluous ‘Lonely Town’ even if the three sailors were too much of a muchness. The women too came over as uniformly (and tiresomely) sassy. Siena Kelly, striking irritating poses as Miss Turnstiles, had no opportunity to put across the vulnerability of Ivy Smith. Celinde Schoenmaker’s pseudo-operatic, specs-and-heels Claire de Loone was pushed even further (and shriekily) over the top. Only Louise Dearman’s Hildy found the right kind of vulgarity for her taxi-driving role. She was arguably more successful than MTT’s Tyne Daley in keeping the updated patter of ‘I can cook too’ in character and in pitch. Significantly perhaps she had participated in previous Wilson Proms. Barnaby Rae, memorable as a black-toned Sparafucile in Jonathan Miller’s ENO Rigoletto, stood out, not implausibly, making a real ‘operatic’ impact at the start of the evening as a Brooklyn naval-yard worker, then doubling up as Pitkin, in full command for his parody aria, ‘I understand’.
Throughout the orchestral players looked rather hemmed in by the action with a largely redundant student choir (best as squeaky Charleston girls or when providing brief solos) situated hard-left behind them. At the very end there was an imaginative touch as the next trio of sailors began their shore leave high up by the organ console. A pity there wasn’t time for more sophisticated site-management of that kind. Costuming was of the T-shirt and jeans variety. ENO’s production of this show was purportedly the most commercially successful venture in the company’s history. While I doubt even his most ardent fans would be tempted to place this revivification as a comparable jewel in John Wilson’s crown, it is only fair to report that an attentive capacity audience lapped it all up.