Review: West Side Story: 2 Raves for a Classic

Manuel Stark Santos (far left) as Bernardo and Amanda Castro as Anita (in red dress) in the gym dance scene of “West Side Story” now playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: through June 2
Tickets: $29-$219
Phone: 312-827-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

West Side Story” didn’t win the Tony Award for Best Musical when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1957, but it should have.

The re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics, making his Broadway debut), originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, arguably is one of the greatest musicals ever written. But the top award that year went to “The Music Man,” a quintessential “feel good” show.

“Feel good” is not a phrase that could be applied to “West Side Story.” It broke new ground by being a musical that didn’t have a happy ending and took on racism and social strife in its depiction of the relentless warfare between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, rival gangs on New York’s West Side. If the characters tended to be stereotypes, and the cops were especially cartoonish, the message of tolerance and inclusion still resonates today, more than 60 years later.

The story of star-crossed love thwarted by senseless hatred sparked a glorious score—one of Bernstein’s greatest—filled with iconic songs that suit the action beautifully. All of them are memorable, from “Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” and the haunting “Somewhere,” to the impassioned “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Sondheim’s lyrics often capture the urgent exuberance of young love or the anger of the abused but also can be satirical and very funny, for example, in the Puerto Rican women’s view of their homeland versus “America,” as well as the Jets’ more obvious “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

Robbins’ choreography also set “West Side Story” apart. It includes more than the then-usual number of major dance routines ranging from jazzy to balletic. Essentially, the story unfolds in dance as well as in song, requiring triple-threat performers who can sing, dance, and act.

Lyric Opera of Chicago has assembled such a cast for its premiere, a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and Glimmerglass Festival directed by Francesca Zambello. The concept was to recreate the original as closely as possible, particularly Robbins’ choreography, which is “reproduced” by Julio Monge. So, it would be unfair to expect any radical rethinking, but there are some minor tweaks.

One of the evening’s main assets is the full orchestra under conductor James Lowe, and it’s possible the music sounds even better than it did in 1957, though on opening night, some of the lyrics were muffled from where I was sitting. The Lyric’s stage is more expansive than that of a typical Broadway house, giving the dancers plenty of room to move, at least when not hampered by the set.

Lyric has a winning Tony is Corey Cott, whose voice soars when it should (usually without becoming nasal) but is equally capable of quiet. Even more impressive is Mikaela Bennett’s Maria, whose rich soprano is incomparably expressive. Interestingly, the song “Somewhere,” accompanied by a ballet evoking a better world in which she and Tony could live, has cannily been transferred to her, whereas it originally was sung by one of the other Puerto Rican women. Both Cott and Bennett are good actors, too, though the chemistry isn’t quite there between them.

As Anita, Amanda Castro combines a fiery presence with a strong voice and great dancing. Manuel Stark Santos doesn’t have as much to do as her boyfriend Bernardo, leader of the Sharks—he doesn’t even get a song—but he’s a fine dancer, as are all the members of both gangs. Of the “adults,” David Alan Anderson’s Doc stands out for both his understanding and outrage. Bret Tuomi and Jerry Kernion take on the thankless roles of officers Schrank and Krupke respectively.

I have a couple of quibbles with Peter J. Davison’s set design, which features an industrial-looking

background and a rococo facade that looks leftover from an opera, as well as the apartment house with Maria’s balcony that opens to reveal her bedroom. For some reason, a couple of sections of cyclone fence are moved into and out of place manually for the gang scenes, which is odd and also means that they’re not sturdy enough for the dancers to go leaping around on them (as in the movie, for example). In addition, the big rumble is supposed to take place “under the highway,” but there is no suggestion of that road, as far as I can see.

Even more problematic are Jessica Jahn’s costumes. Although everything else about the production—not to mention the original it is recreating—is rooted in the 1950s, most of the costumes have been updated to more-or-less reflect current fashions, tattoos and all. This doesn’t make any sense and is distracting.

The Dance at the Gym is a case in point. The boys come in their street clothes, whereas they should be wearing jackets and ties, certainly then and arguably even today. The girls’ outfits are merely confusing; for example, Graziella (Kyra Sorce), the girlfriend of Jets’ leader Riff (Brett Thiele), wears a cobalt-blue satin dress with a bare midriff that, from a distance at least, made me think she was with the Sharks. On top of all this, Maria is saddled with a white frock that doesn’t fit properly.

Still, there’s no question that this “West Side Story” is worth seeing. It didn’t blow me away, but I was moved. And as for those aforementioned “tweaks,” if you remember the show ending with a procession of members from both gangs bearing Tony’s body, you’re right; it’s been dropped here, I don’t know exactly why.