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. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Jun. 2
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Music critic

In this 100th birthday year for Leonard Bernstein, it is a great pleasure that Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting a large number of performances of “West Side Story.” For many people, this musical theater reshaping and updating of “Romeo and Juliette,” with book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, represents Bernstein’s masterpiece. It is the first time Lyric has presented the work.

Lyric is giving “West Side Story” the masterpiece treatment with this energetic and electrifying production that packs the stage with a large number of outstanding singers, dancers, and actors. The fact that most of the cast are superb in all three of these categories makes it a must-see.

Visually gritty and grey, the set design by Peter J. Davidson is dominated by water towers in the distance, with a highway bridge on one side and tenements on the other. We see the back of large signs, and the backside of a poor neighborhood. It is in this claustrophobic little neighborhood in the shadow of a great city that a white gang (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks) live in tense co-existence. The tension increases when Tony, the best friend of Riff who is also the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Shark boss Bernardo.

Many people thought “West Side Story” could never succeed because the Act I curtain falls as two characters die on stage and the piece closes with another death. Such tragedy appeared incommensurate with musical theater traditions. Yet it did succeed and has become one of the great works in American musical theater.

This production, beautifully directed by Francesca Zambello, embraces the story on its own terms and brings us a world where love offers an alternative to a life of fear and prejudice. Zambello never treats her characters as stereotypes (except perhaps the cops, who are written as quite odious men) but as whole people, with hopes and dreams as well as flaws.

But what makes this “West Side Story” so positively irresistible is the magnificent, incredible dancing. The late Jerome Robbins provided the original direction and choreography for the original 1957 production at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City and his choreography is reproduced here by Julio Monge. It is vibrant and exhilarating. Combining natural swagger, jazzy cockiness, and balletic power, it combines artfully with the story and augments the music’s message with visual power. It is dazzling and dizzying and glorious.

The singing is never short of good and often rises to excellent. Corey Cott as Tony stands out as the best of the triple-threat performers; he sings, acts, and dances up a storm. He has an attractive singing voice, sure-footed acting, and light-on-his-feet dancing. This poor Romeo, whose only hope of escaping the danger of the city is to decamp with Maria to the countryside, is one you will fall in love with.

Mikaela Bennett offers a sold portrayal as Maria, the young woman new to the U.S. who is expected to marry her brother’s friend. She brings youthful vigor to the role and offers a sweet and innocent portrayal. Her singing is solid, but without the amplification offered to the singers, would never be heard. She has a pretty, if pale, voice and had a tendency to fall flat the night I saw the production.

Amanda Castro is a tremendous Anita. Beautiful and sexy, Castro casts a spell any time she is on stage. She rocks the little red dress she wears for the gym scene and dances and sings with such skill that you cannot take your eyes off her.

All the smaller roles are well cast, almost exclusively with artists who are making their Lyric debut. Standouts include Manuel Stark Santos as the tough and dangerous Bernardo, and Brett Thiele who is the epitome of jazz “cool.”

James Lowe conducts and draws out the drama and beauty of the score. He effectively cushions both singers and dancers and paces the music well.

It would be well to plan to arrive a bit earlier than normal for this production. I arrived at the opera house 16 minutes before curtain time only to find that the pavement in front of the doors was jam-packed with folks trying to get in. The bottleneck was at the stations where they open and examine your bags. Two doors were eventually opened for people who had no bags. This section was immediately clogged not only with bag holders but even someone with a piece of luggage, only slowing down matters further.

In the packed, pushing environment I was separated briefly from the friend who accompanied me and in the space of less than one minute she found herself berated by a bag checker and had two different ticket takers barking contradictory orders at her. It was deeply unpleasant and scarcely necessary. The curtain was, absolutely surprising for Lyric, seven minutes late. In spite of this, there was late seating (which was distracting) and the person sitting directly in front of me left the performance twice during the first act and was let back in both times. This isn’t what normally happens at the opera, so be prepared.

Even with these distractions, this “West Side Story” is so powerful and so beautiful, that it simply shouldn’t be missed.

 

CAPTION:

  1. 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. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)