Photo: The cast of Lyric Opera’s “West Side Story.” | Todd Rosenberg
by Sheri Flanders
“West Side Story” is one of the most beloved and enduring musicals of all time, and for good reason. A true American story, created by a team of giants in musical theater (four gay Jewish men: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins), it is one of the rare musicals that have a massively engaging story, a near-perfect musical story, and some of the most iconic choreography ever created.
Popularized in households across America with the release of the 1961 film, every restaging finds itself measured not only against this unbelievably high bar, but changing societal politics that often are unforgiving to the tone-deaf musicals of yesteryear. What was once cutting-edge and progressive can quickly become cringe-worthy and regressive with the passage of time. Yet nostalgia for this show runs deep among those of a certain age, and especially among those of us who fell in love with a musical theater world that we could never afford to attend in person because we saw someone who looked like ourselves on screen.
Beautifully directed by Francesca Zambello, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “West Side Story” is a heartwarming rendition that will delight both the young and the young at heart. The scenery by Peter J. Davison is gorgeous, and Julio Monge sets Robbins original choreography in a faithful and vibrant way. Sequences like the “Dance at the Gym” are truly outstanding. Sound Mixing Engineer Stephanie Farina does a lovely job of ensuring that the orchestra and vocalists are well-balanced and full, which is no easy feat, and not always successfully achieved in Chicago’s musical theater landscape.
Most of the story remains evergreen; The “Romeo and Juliet” tale of forbidden love continues to resonate in a country still plagued with racism. The silly and irreverent “Gee, Officer Krupke” is a surprisingly sobering takedown of the way that society gives up on troubled youth and funnels them through the system towards jail. The brilliance of Bernstein’s music is the application of dissonance and jazz elements as a metaphor for the blind rage and muddled confusion of teenage inner-city angst. The tragic ending remains refreshing in its truth, a sobering reminder of the inescapable perils of gun-violence.
However, not all elements of the musical have aged so well. A song like “America,” essentially a diss-track, has taken on a dark and poisonous irony in the face of Puerto Rico’s recent destruction and the failure of the American government to provide life-saving help. Amanda Castro is a brilliant light onstage as Anita, charging forward and leading the Shark girls in a defiantly joyous rendition of the tune with fabulous dancing. Perhaps it might be possible to find an innovative way to add context to this song and find a way to lean it into satire somehow through scenery or staging, but if there is, Zambello, unfortunately, did not achieve this impossible task. Beloved as this musical is, this disconcerting song being staged in 2019 should be a clarion call to all theaters to aggressively seek out and stage new works by Latinx playwrights for Latinx actors.
Corey Cott plays a vibrant and vulnerable Tony, who has great chemistry with Mikaela Bennett’s Maria. Cott is an expressive actor and solidly accomplished musical theater singer, yet his talent does not fully translate into a jazz sensibility, which is most apparent in his rendition of the musically challenging and delicate “Something’s Coming,” a song about a vague, undefined yearning. Cott hits some notes full-on and choppily, rather than bouncing and skimming over the orchestra with grace and elasticity. This is, however, a small stylistic preference in an otherwise great performance.
Bennet’s Maria is pitch-perfect; her warm and endearing persona brings depth to the naive character. Her voice is a treat not to be missed, especially in her showstopper rendition of “Somewhere,” one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs in the musical theater canon, will bring you to tears. Brett Thiele and Manuel Stark Santos give wonderfully plucky and energetic performances as Riff and Bernardo, respectively, the rival gang leaders of the Jets and Sharks. Alexa Margo and Greg Blackmon are delightfully funny as Anybodys and Anxious, the comic relief in each of their gangs. The entire dance corps achieves a glorious triumph, executing the dazzling choreography in a deeply joyous and satisfying way that illustrates the tension words cannot describe.
If you get the chance to see one musical live onstage this summer, “West Side Story” at the Lyric Opera is a fabulous choice. The opportunity to hear such a lush score expertly led by conductor James Lowe, performed by an ensemble of exquisitely talented triple-threat performers, should not be missed. But if the ticket price eludes your wallet, somewhere….there’s a place for you. I recommend keeping an eye out for the Music Box Theater’s annual screening of the classic film during its 70mm film festival.
“West Side Story” runs through June 9 at Lyric Opera. More info at lyricopera.org.