Review: Standout Performances in Lyric Opera’s Uneven West Side Story

Choreography by Jerome Robbins, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and music by Leonard Bernstein are the calling cards of West Side Story. This is an energetic and passionate contemporary retelling directed again by Francesca Zambello. There are some changes in this version that threw the trajectory of the story off in spite of fantastic performances.

Tony is performed exquisitely by Ryan McCartan. His performance is on point as the lovestruck White boy who falls for Maria–the lovely Kanisha Feliciano. McCartan is easily the best voice in the production with a tenor that floats to silky high notes with ease. Feliciano has a sweet soprano but it does not have the projection or force to equal the operatic voice of McCartan. Her acting is wonderful as the innocent and yet adventurous new migrant to New York City.

Ryan McCartan, Kanisha Feliciano, and ensemble. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

I found the racism and police collusion parts of the story to be painfully contemporary. It is a story that is on repeat in America. The Jets led by Riff (Brett Thiele) represent the people who will not yield territory or extend a welcome to migrants, even from a colonized commonwealth. The character Action has an enhanced vibe of danger and reactionary violence as played by Nathan Keen. Officer Krupke (John Lister) and Lieutenant Schrank (Keith Kupferer) play cops that recall the unfortunate Burge era in Chicago. The racial harassment and search and seizure tactics were not as prominent in the original production. It is a good enhancement to point out the cyclical nature of prejudice in America.

Jets ensemble. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

One other thing that has a contemporary vibe is some more lewd movements and gestures in the choreography. I do not know if it was director Zambello’s idea or if it was an improv for Keen’s Action character. I did not dig the masturbatory pantomime—especially the pseudo ejaculation. It is not necessary to add that level of baseness to a musical in the American canon.

The Sharks are led by Bernardo in a hot performance by Yurel Echezarreta. The recognition of being looked down upon and openly discriminated against is perfectly acted by the ensemble. The Sharks ensemble project a barely contained anger at being discriminated against and looked down upon by Americans. Their disdain of the police. and the whistling of My Country ‘Tis of Thee still remains an indictment of racism and xenophobia in America. Also, it's a savvy choice of song as it was originally the melody of God Save the King/Queen from America's original colonizers under King George III.

The return of Amanda Castro as Anita is a highlight of the show. Castro leads the ensemble of Shark girls with precision and exuding passion. She rocks the role of Anita and belongs in the good company of Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno. "America" is a spectacular vignette of Jerome Robbins’ craft renewed by choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

Amanda Castro (center in red) and Shark Girls ensemble. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Overall, Lyric’s staging of West Side Story is an exuberant and fun time. It was dimmed a bit by the updates to the order of music and changes to the original. "America" is sung by the Shark girls opposite the Shark guys. The back-and-forth between the characters of Anita and Bernardo is fun and shows more of the relationship dynamic between Bernardo and Maria. The rhythmic "Cool" comes before "The Rumble" and "One Hand, One Heart" is in the first act in the original and the 1961 film. Also, "Gee, Officer Krupke" coming after Riff's and Bernardo’s deaths falls flat. Their leader has been shanked and they are singing to the cops? Unrealistic in contemporary times and in mid-century America as well.

In spite of the changes that I consider a sin, I recommend West Side Story for its high-caliber performances and timeless music. In particular, McCartan and Castro who bring some serious star power to the stage. The ensemble and choreography give a performance worthy of the music, choreography and lyrics.

Lyric Opera’s West Side Story is 2 hours with a 20-minute intermission at the Lyric Opera House of Chicago, 20 W. Wacker Drive, through June 25. For tickets, performance times, and more information, please visit

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.