First and foremost, West Side Story is a masterpiece. Though the tale is as old as time, borrowing directly from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Leonard Bernstein’s eclectic score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrical Broadway debut stamped the musical for success that persists even today. Live symphonic performances of popular productions have become popular in the area lately. The NC Symphony is running through the Harry Potter canon with the films up on their big screen, Goblin accompanies their cult horror hit Suspiria at the Lincoln Theater around Halloween occasionally, and now the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra has joined forces with local theatre company Raleigh Little Theatre to produce WSS in concert. RLT Executive Director Charles Phaneuf, RLT Artistic Director Patrick Torres, RSO Music Director Jim Waddelow, and Vocal Director Michael Santangelo (of Athens Drive High School) collaborated to bring 20 actors and singers together for two shows only with full orchestra to showcase the music of West Side Story.

With the unique instrumentation and syncopated rhythms of the opening “Prologue,” it bears reasoning that this music could stand alone in a symphonic concert; Bernstein’s utilization of single instruments and quick changing tempos are interesting enough in their own right. But Bernstein had already cut his teeth with his Broadway debut On the Town by the time West Side Story was born, and so his compositions truly come to life in the full expression of the theatre. This rang true in Saturday night’s performance as well. While it was not a full scale production with costumes, set designs, and choreography, the voices of the Raleigh Little Theatre ensemble brought to life the already dynamic and intricate music performed by the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. In the opening vocal number “Jet Song” the Jet ensemble, clad in all white, boasted strong tenor talent that Zack Meeker (Tony) drove home in his first solo, “Something’s Coming.” Next, in an orchestral medley of sorts that highlighted Bernstein’s proficiency in a variety styles, various sections of the orchestra took the spotlight. The jazzy brass swing of “The Dance at the Gym” gave way to lilting strings in a brief “Promenade.” The percussion led the way through a shift in styles to numbers like “Mambo” and “Cha-Cha” and Meeker bookended the set with his delicate and affecting rendition of “Maria.” His subsequent numbers only improved from an already stellar start and Meeker shone in his debut with Raleigh Little Theatre. We then met Alyssa White (Maria), who matched Meeker’s ability note for note with her masterful soprano. White excelled throughout her performance, but most of all with her incredible delivery of “One Hand, One Heart.” Her ability to sustain astronomical high notes at almost a whisper was absolute vocal artistry. The strength of the soloists made for strength in the ensemble and they delivered in spades. We met the Sharks – in all black, mostly comprised of the Shark women led by the charismatic Elizabeth M. Quesada (Anita), in the popular song “America”. Through their spirited vocal performance and the robust orchestral flairs, we were reminded of the great opportunity to expand in future collaborations to include choreography! The ensemble flexed their skills with rhythms, melody, and harmony in their closing vocal number “Tonight” and Raleigh Symphony Orchestra showed their strengths with “The Rumble” to close Act I.

Throughout the evening the RSO revealed particular strength in their command of subtlety. “The Rumble” highlighted this strength in particular. While many final numbers leading to an intermission will bring the house down with full band, full ensemble compositions, Act I for this performance culminated in a single captivating note. Bernstein uses explicit beats of silence in West Side Story as intentionally as he uses instruments, which the orchestra honored to perfection. Brief measures of solo instruments were never lost and masterful dynamic shifts elevated the performance from a symphonic concert to an immersive artistic experience.

Act II delved more into the intimacies of the relationships in West Side Story with numbers such as “Somewhere,” performed beautifully by yet another artist making a RLT debut, Elena Montero Mulligan. The orchestra structured the mood leading into various vocal performances with numbers such as “Scherzo,” and “Procession and Nightmare.” “Gee, Officer Krupke” provided a fun comedic break before Alyssa White and Elizabeth Quesada performed moving duets of “A Boy Like That” and “I Have a Love.” “A Boy Like That” showcased Quesada’s robust alto in particular and emphasized her professional control in balancing with White’s established soprano. “Finale” reiterated the RSO’s strength in moments of stillness and played out Maria and Tony’s final moments, bringing the teary-eyed audience immediately to their feet.

From the romantic outdoor venue to the comprehensive musical performances this collaboration between Raleigh Little Theater and Raleigh Symphony Orchestra hit a home run. Raleigh has community treasures with each of these organizations, and hopefully this symphonic concert of West Side Story will be the first of many productions to come from a beautiful partnership.

WSS repeats on Sunday afternoon, May 19. See the sidebar for details.