Review: Fresh Talent and Palpable Energy Deliver a Can’t Miss West Side Story

At a typical (however one defines that) performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the accompanying program includes in each cast and crew bio the professional’s previous Lyric credits. The asterisks that indicate a Lyric debut are few and far between; certainly, the esteemed theater is a must-stop performance destination in any modern operatic career.

West Side Story
Image by Todd Rosenberg

Which is what makes West Side Story‘s creative team, both on and off stage, so unique; by my count, more than 30 cast members make their Lyric debut in director Francesca Zambello’s ambitious, high-energy revival of the American classic. Even Jerome Robbins, credited with the original direction and choreography of the tragic Romeo and Juliet story, receives the asterisk, noting the first time the Lyric has presented this show (or any of his shows, apparently). Zambello herself has directed many well-received Lyric productions, but still—all of this new blood, from insanely talented actors in the lead roles to choreography that both honors and modernizes the iconic original, conspires to present a fresh, youthful and essential version of a classic that proves itself as relevant as ever more than 60 years after its debut.

With its book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story entered the American cultural zeitgeist after its wide release as a film starring Natalie Wood as Maria, a young Puerto Rican girl newly arrived in Manhattan, Richard Beymer as Tony, the local boy and former founder/member of the local hoodlum gang, the Jets, and Rita Moreno as Anita, Maria’s plucky, sassy best friend and go-between for the star-crossed lovers. If you’ve not yet caught the film in all its vibrant colors and scope at Music Box Theatre’s annual 70MM Festival, please make a note to do so the next time it comes around. But I digress…

Staging such a beloved musical is always risky, expectations being what they are with familiar material. Staging a beloved musical that is also a bit dated (as most content of days gone by is during these woke times of ours) is a feat of theatrical ego that is to either be condemned or commended, depending. Thanks to Zambello, her stellar cast, the driving, buoyant orchestrations by James Lowe and strong showings from aspects like costumes (Jessica Jahn) to lighting (Mark McCullough) to set design (Peter J. Davison), the West Side Story on at Lyric through June 2 is the latter. It is very, very much the latter.

Immediately evident at Saturday’s opening night performance was the sheer kinetic energy pulsing between the ensemble, the stars, the orchestra and the audience. These kids were jazzed to be on stage, and while some of that enthusiasm manifested itself in a missed cue here or a slightly mis-synced dance sequence there, these are quibbles for a show that on the whole more than earned its standing ovation during the curtain call. Corey Cott as Tony brings a fierce intensity balanced by a romantic’s heart, pacing his delivery from the get-go to be sure he leaves the room we’ll need for the flood of emotions in store in the second act. Mikaela Bennett as Maria is a revelation, with a soprano that is nothing short of angelic, whether in quiet duets with Cott or belting above the fray in show-stopping ensemble numbers. Together, their chemistry is evident from the first row to the last; I dare you not to feel anything in the show’s powerful final scenes.

And then there’s Amanda Castro as Anita, the role with perhaps the biggest metaphorical shoes to fill, so iconic is Rita Moreno’s portrayal of the saucy, sexy spitfire. Castro is more than a little familiar with the role, according to her bio, having played Anita in at least two previous productions, and it shows. She comes to the show ready to rumble, and leaves it all on the stage. Moreno would be proud.

At its heart, West Side Story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the “us vs. them” narrative, stubbornly persistent across eras and generations. The original staging placed the proceedings in then present day, drawing not only on the racial and economic tensions of the era but also addressing the rifts between police and civilians as well as old-world parents and their new-world teenagers. Nearly 20 years into the new millennium, it’s no easier to be confronted with these narratives and their damaging repercussions. And though this latest staging appears fairly ambiguous as to the era in which it’s set—there’s a ’50s diner and plenty of retro slang, but the costumes look a bit more modern, for example—there’s no mistaking just how compelling and moving the production remains.

You’re not meant to leave this ultimately heartbreaking show on a high note, ending as it does; it’s heavy and complicated and deserves contemplation. But thanks to such a spectacular staging and unforgettable performances, Lyric’s latest foray into Broadway productions proves another smashing success worth seeking out.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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