In recent years, major orchestras have found it popular – and lucrative – to perform concert versions of hit Broadway musicals. In these performances, there are no costumes, staging or dancing but simply singers standing with the orchestra on stage, singing through the score.
The recent centennial birth year of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) has given occasion for orchestras to perform a concert version of his most successful and beloved work, “West Side Story,” on which he collaborated with lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The Imperial Symphony Orchestra has enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon, and in its final concert of the 2018-2019 season, the orchestra will perform a concert version of “West Side Story” featuring singers from Polk County.
The concert takes place at 8 p.m. on Friday in the Youkey Theatre at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. (Ticket info).
Amy Wiggins, executive director of the Imperial Symphony, said the orchestra’s leadership learned last year that Music Theatre International, a clearinghouse for theatrical scores and arrangements, had a limited number of shows available in concert versions, including “West Side Story.”
“We know our patrons love Broadway, and the orchestra, too. It’s great music,” she said. “We thought how great it would be if we could hold auditions and have some of our talented local singers perform.”
Singing the lead roles of Tony and Maria, respectively, are Nick Folkes of Winter Haven and Crystal Lizardo, a graduate of Ridge Community High School in Davenport. Folkes has performed with local theater troupes and sang with the Imperial Symphony previously in a pops concert.
Lizardo, 27, studied at Polk State College and the University of Central Florida, lives in Orlando and teaches drama to preschool children with Orlando Repertory Theatre. She also sings with two a cappella groups, including Right on Key, which performs at Disney Springs. She has sung the role of Maria in a concert version for a fundraiser for the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and won the Imperial Symphony audition by sending in a video she recorded in her living room.
“It’s one of those shows that once you learn the role, it stays with you. The music and the story are timeless. The topic is still so relevant, and that’s why people love it,” she said.
Lizardo’s parents are from the Dominican Republic, and she said that although Maria is Puerto Rican, she grasps her Latino culture.
“I can relate to Maria. She is not only growing up as a woman, she has fallen in love for the first time,” she said. “And (there’s) that feeling of being different, an outsider.”
Also in featured roles in Friday’s concert will be Ashley Norsworthy as Maria’s friend, Anita, and Sam Bowling as Riff, the leader of Tony’s gang, the Jets. An ensemble will fill out the singing cast.
Wiggins said there will be a cameo appearance in a non-singing role. The tough-talking Officer Krupke, who in a comic scene tries to intimidate the Jets, will be performed by Richie Johnson, purchasing manager for Southern Homes, the major sponsor of the concert.
Friday’s concert will follow a 2014 version recorded by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. Bernstein’s score was considered a radical departure for Broadway when the musical premiered in 1957, blending classical, jazz and pop genres.
“It’s difficult,” Wiggins said. “(Music director) Mark Thielen was showing me the score, and the time signature shifts from measure to measure.”
Lizardo said the tragic ending of “West Side Story” is foreshadowed in the music.
“There are beautiful melodies, but there’s an underlying sense of urgency. It’s a beautiful nightmare. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, but that’s life sometimes,” she said.
However, she also pointed to the note of hope in the lyrics – “We’ll find a new way of living” – in the concluding song, “Somewhere.”
“That’s my hope, that one day there will be no pain or violence,” she said.