West Side Story
At the Lyric Opera House
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Fortunately, the Lyric Opera revival of “West Side Story” doesn’t follow the recent trend in American musical theater of rethinking classic shows, generally turning them darker and more problematic. The Lyric production isn’t revisionist. It is consistently guided by the look and spirit of the original 1957 show but the performances and staging are so accomplished that the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classic seems mint fresh, even to audiences who think they know the show thoroughly.
As all theatergoers know, “West Side Story” is a modern riff on William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” The warring Montague and Capulet families now become warring youth gangs, the Sharks, a Hispanic gang of Puerto Rican heritage, and the Jets. Romeo is now Tony, a leader of the Jets, and Maria is a teenage girl sent from her native Puerto Rico to the mainland to marry a Puerto Rican boy settled in the states. The musical changes the location from Italian renaissance Verona to a modern gritty Manhattan neighborhood in New York City. There Shakespeare’s Montague-Capulet antagonism is played out by the rival youth gangs to the play’s tragic conclusion.
In previous revivals I’ve seen, the “West Side Story” did not age well. The marvelous Bernstein score was still great and the Jerome Robbins choreography still was stirring and athletic, but the dialogue was marred by dated 1950’s lingo liked ”Buddy boy” and “womb to tomb.” One left the theater feeling that the audience’s time would have been better spent watching a concert version that minimized the corny dialogue and maximized the glorious score—the romantic “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” and the satiric “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
The clumsy sounding language is a very minor inconvenience at the Lyric, well covered by the ensemble’s realistic command of the Laurents dialogue. What endures is the portrayal in words and deeds of the hatred between the two ethnic gangs, hostilities played out on the mean streets of urban America. There has been no attempt to inject political correctness in the revival to soothe modern sensibilities. Puerto Rican stereotypes are exuberantly mocked in the hilarious “America” song and dance number. A New York City policeman is portrayed as a brutal racist. The violence, when it erupts, is savage and believable. The show’s romance and comedy remain a delight but the production never takes its eye off the dramatic ball, focusing on the heartbreaking fate of Maria and Tony, two nice kids destroyed because the people living in their world just couldn’t get along.
The multiple strengths of this production start at the top with superb renders of Maria and Tony by Mikaela Bennett and Corey Cott. Bennett is the most complete Maria I’ve ever seen, kittenish and funny (in “I Feel Pretty”), ascending to a fierce passion (“I Have a Love”) after learning that Tony has killed her brother. Cott’s Tony sings the production’s first showstopper, “Maria,” and if he doesn’t quite evoke the macho image of a gang leader, he is still credible.
Most important, there is real chemistry between Bennett and Cott as the star crossed lovers. It’s still difficult to accept that Maria and Tony, from mutually antagonistic backgrounds, should instantly fall in love before speaking a word, but that’s on Shakespeare, not Bernstein and company. Bennett’s character seems to grow in inner strength and resolve as the narrative moves to its inevitable conclusion. Tony’s emotional reaction to the false news that Maria has been shot is agonizing in its grief. Bennett and Cott make Maria and Tony’s instant passion believable, no small acting achievement, that makes their fate all the more painful, and unfair.
The two stars are supported by terrific work from Amanda Castro as a fiery Chita Rivera-like Anita. All the gang members and their girls look and sound like the real deal. Let Brett Thiele (Riff), Adam Soniak (Action), and Manuel Stark Santos (Bernardo) represent the entire corps of Jets and Sharks, more than two dozen male and female singers and dancers who bring gang life on the streets to vivid life.
Director Francesca Zambello has sustained an atmosphere of gritty realism that sets the tone for the narrative as it careens to its tragic finale. Her direction is splendidly supported by Julio Monge’s choreography, never far from the Jerome Robbins original, as in the opening scene and in the dance at the gym where Maria and Tony first meet. Monge isn’t afraid to enhance the dancing with his own embellishments, especially the elegiac “Somewhere” ballet.
The physical action is highlighted by the rumble between the Sharks and the Jets in the first act and the horrifying Jet assault on Anita in Doc’s drugstore in the second act. Both are orchestrated with ferocious realism by fight director Nick Sandys.
The team of designers has combined to create the convincing lower depths urban world where the gangs struggle to survive. Peter J. Davison’s set design captures the fire escape dinginess of the rundown neighborhood where the Jets and Sharks fight for supremacy. Jessica Jahn’s costumes, especially the sexy outfits worn by the gang girlfriends, are eye-catching in their gaudy color. Mark McCullough’s lighting and Mark Grey’s sound design complete the outstanding rendering of the imprisoning environment. The large Lyric orchestra, conducted by James Lowe, serves the complex Bernstein score well. No surprise there.
An observer may claim that the Jets-Sharks conflict, even with its violence, looks almost innocent in comparison to the gang scene in today’s society, with its epidemic of drive-by shootings and drug wars. But prejudice is still prejudice, poverty is still poverty, and the desperation of young people mired in hopelessness and desperation is still a national agony. Still, ”West Side Story” isn’t a sociology term paper, though it does raise disturbing issues that are as topical today as they were in the mid 20th century. What it does offer the spectator is a brilliantly performed and staged version of an American classic. This revival is a major event on the Chicagoland artistic calendar.
The show gets a rating of
“West Side Story” is running on selected dates through June 2 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets are $39 to $219. Call 312 827 5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com May 2019
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