Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

West Side Story
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Review by John Olson

Also see John's review of August Rush


The Cast
Photo by Todd Rosenberg
West Side Story is one of our best-loved musicals, but it's always seemed a bit too big to fit completely inside that box. It's been reported that director-choreographer Jerome Robbins found it hard to cast young performers who could both sing and dance well enough to be Jets and Sharks. Leonard Bernstein, already a serious classical composer by the time he wrote the music for West Side Story, apparently felt it needed to be recognized as serious, classical music. He rearranged the musical's dance music into the "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" suite for symphony orchestra and in 1984 was moved to record the score with operatically trained singers. He was quoted at the time as saying, "For the first time in my life, we can have exactly the singers we want.."

With a score by one of the 20th century's most acclaimed serious composers that begs to played by a symphony orchestra (as it has been by many orchestras who have performed it alongside screenings of the film), extensive dance sequences by one of the greatest choreographers of the century, and a book by a serious dramatic playwright (Arthur Laurents) that sought to make a significant social comment, is it possible that West Side Story is just so much great art in one piece that it is almost impossible for a single production to do it justice?

The West Side Story now in performance by Lyric Opera of Chicago, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Glimmerglass Festival, who each performed it in 2018, may be a landmark in its ability to fully realize all the richness of this work. The original Jerome Robbins choreography is danced exquisitely, as recreated by Julio Monge, Bernstein's complex score is played by a 43-piece orchestra and sung to meet the demands of operatic as well as Broadway styles, while Stephen Sondheim's lyrics (some written by an uncredited Bernstein) are clear and sharp thanks to Mark Grey's sound design. The cast, led by Broadway's Corey Cott as Tony and opera's Mikaela Bennett as Maria, act not only believably but with some new interpretations than most of us may not be used to seeing.

Director Francesca Zambello, who is known mostly for her work in opera but has worked in musical theatre as well, creates (with mostly the same design team from Houston and Glimmerglass and a mostly new cast for Chicago) a grittier and more realistic picture than we saw in the 1961 film version and many of the stage interpretations of the musical that have been inspired by it. There's real sexual heat on display here. Tony and Maria make out like it's the last night of the world, while Bernardo and (Manuel Stark Santos) and Anita (Amanda Castro) have a lust for each other that's never in doubt either.

Jessica Jahn's costumes are colorful, but tattier and more appropriate to these street kids than the slick pastels of the 1961 film, And the kids don't clean up for the dance at the gym—they stay in the grubby clothes they wear in the daytime. Peter J. Davison's set evokes urban decay—with a forbidding three-story tenement stage right and the back of a shabby hotel stage left—leaving a playing area in the middle that suggests streets with insufficient sunlight to lessen the hopelessness. Mark McCollough's lighting design creates a sense there's light out there somewhere—just not in these blocks. Nick Sandy's fight choreography gives the action a sense of physical danger, not only in the fighting but in the near-rape of Anita that he and Zambello keep going for an uncomfortably long time.

When we meet Cott's Tony in the "Something's Coming" scene, he appears believably enough as a former gang member with PTSD from past violence who understandably wants to be done with gang life. However, it seems there's probably no way for any actor to avoid losing that edge when Tony meets Maria and Laurents' book gives him lines to read like "We're twelve feet in the air." At that point we're deeply into Romeo and Juliet-land, so a traditional romantic lead is called for, and Cott makes a great one. Theatergoers who know him from his leading roles in Newsies or Bandstand won't be surprised to hear that, but here's a revelation. He absolutely nails the operatic demands of "Maria" in a way one would never expect from his resume. I'll bet Bernstein would have never seen the need to record the likes of a José Carreras had he heard a musical theater guy like Cott handle his music with such skill.

Conversely, one might be wary of an operatic soprano's ability to act the role of Maria in any sort of interesting way, but Mikaela Bennett brings a new and feistier take to the role than the sweetly innocent interpretation that is more expected. Her Maria is more "Ugly Betty" than naif. When she argues with Anita about the length of the neckline on her party dress, you don't doubt she might rip it up right there. Not surprisingly, her vocals are stunning—and Zambello gives her the solo in "Somewhere" that is usually sung by the Shark girl Consuelo.

Zambello's supporting cast is uniformly strong. As Anita, Amanda Castro, who played the role for the other engagements of this production, is as street-smart as she must be for the director's gritty interpretation, as funny as the role is written, and as outraged as she should be during the near-rape scene. Brett Thiele is a tough but likable Riff, and Adam Soniak makes an angry and dangerous Action. Sporting a shaved head, Manuel Stark Santos is an intimidating Bernardo, but one who suggests the subtext of how he got to be as desperate as he's become. David Alan Anderson is a warm but serious Doc. The ensemble vocals sound wonderful, and are surely enhanced by the Lyric Opera chorus members providing backup.

It may have taken 60+ years for this masterpiece—a work that draws on the traditions of high art and to make a piece of popular art—to finally get its full due. That it happens in such a cathedral of performing arts as Chicago's Civic Opera House under the auspices of Lyric Opera makes it feel even more recognized as a piece for the ages.

West Side Story, through June 2, 2019, at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, visit lyricopera.org or call 312-827-5600.


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