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West Side Story Reviews
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West Side Story
Mike Perlowin

Reviewed by Winnie Winston

To begin, I will admit to hating musicals. Never liked them. All those people singing. Opera too--nothing but a musical in Italian... I never saw West Side Story-- neither the play or the movie. But the music has permeated our culture to such an extent that I can hum lots of it-- even though I’ve never seen it or formally heard it. And I wonder if there is anyone of my generation who can’t do the same... “Maria! I just met a girl named Maria!” is about as deep in the culture as “Oh! What a beautiful morning! Oh! What a beautiful day!” I have no idea what it is from, but I sure know it!

Mike Perlowin undertook to do the whole score to West Side Story using his steel guitar. This is not Mike’s “head arrangement” of what he thinks West Side Story is. It is the score written by Leonard Bernstein, carefully transcribed for steel, and other instruments-- some (piano, drums, keyboard) played by others, and some (6 and 12 string guitar, banjo, mandolin, autoharp) played by Mike. The song I Feel Pretty was played on two non-pedal steels.

On some level, this might be considered “cheating”-- I mean, can he get up on stage and play the thing live? Bet he can’t. But, then again, could Les Paul play live any of the great numbers he did with his experiments with tape speeds, echo chambers, and the like? Does that inability to re-create it live, in its totality, take away from the magnificence of the work itself? Obviously, I’d answer with a “no” to that one.

What Mike did is absolutely brilliant. He has explored the instrument we know and love with all its possible textures, applied it to Leonard Bernstein's amzing score and woven it together into a cohesive whole. And when I listen to it, I’m not thinking, “Gad! It’s West Side Story being played on steel,” but rather, “It’s West Side Story, and I’ve never really heard it before!”

From the introduction, which is decidedly a-tonal and jarring (but exact!), to the smoothness of Maria and to the excitement of America this CD shines. Mike told me that a lot of his arrangements reflect the visual qualities in the movie, so rent the VCR tape some evening, give it a look, and then go back and listen to the CD.

One more admission here... I don’t listen to a lot of stuff. I usually get a CD, play it, and put it in the collection. It is the rare CD that I will listen to over and over. And those that I do give that privilege to are those that have a simplicity (nice to hear) with an underlying complexity that is constantly surprising-- “whoo! what was that interval?” “Didn't quite hear that before!” And that is why I have Mike's CD just lying out-- I play it a lot because I enjoy listening to it.

I gather that the CD was about to be picked up for major distribution, and then the deal fell through.-- which is a shame. It is available for directly from Mike at 4140 Somers Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90065-3819. Get it! you’ll love it.

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