Since West Side Story was my first ever pocket-money album purchase, I am unbelievably, unreasonably touchy about its treatment onstage and off. As I’m a bit of a zealot, I did a great deal of talking myself down, muttering about Bernstein rolling in his grave. But actually, I’m sure he would have loved this. Cubana Bop takes the best of Bernstein’s themes and spins them, stretching well-known melodies into conga-heavy Latin jazz renditions.
The title of this show is somewhat misleading, however, as West Side Story only made up half of the nearly three-hour performance. It also made me cringe when Terry Seabrook felt inclined to say something along the lines of ‘A special hand for our musicians, who only saw this music yesterday!’
Really? We’re paying £15 to see your second rehearsal?
I’m guessing some of these musicians were the enlisted Tony/Riff and Maria, who were hit and miss. One major detraction was the use of words and sheet music – as though the words to ‘Somewhere’ weren’t etched on the collective musical memory. There’s also a reason why Natalie Wood’s singing is dubbed in West Side Story. Such an idea nowadays would be scandalous, but the movie execs were merely being wise: Bernstein’s score is demanding – any amateurs attempting to meander their way through would be immediately scorned, branded like Madonna for attempting Evita. The guest singers had moments of solo brilliance but floundered when attempting to harmonise, they seemed unable to make the numbers their own within a jazz context. This part of the performance was slightly reserved and jumbled, technically sound but lacking the spark of engagement that comes from loving the material.
This wasn’t the case after the interval, when Cubana Bop relaxed into a set of original numbers and jazz standards. Not since Jethro Tull and Ron Burgundy has such jazz fluting won a crowd – the Über-talented Ian Price deserves a mention here for rocking on not one, but three instruments over the course of the evening. There are some musicians, like Ian, who delight in taking the stage and others who wear a look of pain every time they look up and realise people are watching them. Roughly half of the members of Cubana Bop fit into this mold, although I never actually saw the drummer, Adam Riley, who was hidden behind a pillar with his kit.
Cubana Bop would make a killing on an over-60s cruise liner. Most of the audience was, shall we say, very life experienced, and seemed to be fully immersed in the ebb and flow of the songs, bouncing about in their seats the way hipsters head-nod to Tool. From this I take a humble reminder that the customer is always right, and I’ll most likely be booking my stateroom to see Cubana Bop in 2042.