ST. PETERSBURG — Leonard Bernstein said it himself. West Side Story is really hard to cast.
"The characters had to be able not only to sing but dance and act and be taken for teenagers." Bernstein once said. "Some were wonderful singers but couldn't dance very well, or vice versa ... and if they could do both, they couldn't act."
His assessment holds true today. The St. Petersburg Opera Company has tackled Bernstein's enduring work about social ills and love, filling it with a slate of stunning opera singers.
That's appropriate in one sense. West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet, is as close to an opera as Broadway gets. It's full of complex musical structure and vocal requirements.
But it's still a Broadway musical, one with warring gangs and street slang, and it needs to have grit, electricity, tightness. Though the opera's production directed by Bill Leavengood will satisfy fans who come to hear famous tunes, and the live orchestra led by maestro Mark Sforzini is exceedingly tight, there are problems.
Chief among them: Tony. The reformed leader of the Jets is played here by Gilad Paz, a classically trained tenor with a silken, powerful voice. He has been Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Léandre in Le Médecin malgré lui, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, and so on.
He has that two-octave operatic range Tony requires, has no problem whatsoever hitting a high B-flat for eight counts on Maria. Surely Paz shines when it comes to classical music.
But maybe Tony just isn't his role. We have to believe Tony could have been in a 1950s New York gang. Not for one second did I believe this Tony capable of knifing anyone, not even when he was knifing someone.
He plods on and off stage with a serious case of Dead Arms. He spends much of the show dressed in anachronistic dad jeans and Dockers, like he just got off from his IT job at Morgan Stanley. It's very jarring, especially against the rest of the cast dressed in period-appropriate togs and Converse.
That stuff would feel less weighty if we got the tingles when he's with his lady love. But Tony's romantic chemistry with Maria is just lacking. It's really a knife in the soul of the show, which on the whole seems to slog on longer than it should.
Too bad. Maria is cast much better in Stefanie Izzo, who has both a crystal soprano and the acting spunk to make us believe she'd betray her family for love. Her dramatic chops really evolve in the second act.
The Jets are spirited and offer a burst of energy with madcap Gee, Officer Krupke. The gang is led by Riff, played by the weightless and leaping Brett Thiele, last seen as the lead in Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway.
The leads here are mostly imported from New York, but the cast is rounded out with recognizable Tampa Bay staples including Matthew McGee and Christopher Rutherford. They're both sharp in their roles as grownup foils to the fighting teens.
But there's one actor who makes everyone else on stage look sleepy.
Kaitlyn Costello plays Anita, on fire to the tips of her toes. Not only is her mezzo-soprano on point, she is clearly a trained dancer. More importantly, she never lets her energy flag, moving like the sexy, conflicted Anita should move even when exiting into the dark wings. If only the rest of the casting was so spot-on.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.