Editor’s Note: Read our related story-- Lyric Opera WEST SIDE STORY Preview — Conversation with Choreographer Julio Monge.
It’s difficult not to be awed by the athletic ballet of rival gangs that opens West Side Story. One could hastily think that Jerome Robbins’ choreography delivered with such grace by this cast is going to carry the entire show, because it could. Bernstein’s music snaps our attention towards the orchestra pit. Because it is a live performance and not the recording some of us know so well, it is newly compelling. And, as the young lovers clamor to get in each others’ arms and pants in the early balcony scene, you might also be reminded that at its core this is a Shakespeare story that will never tire of being told in new form. In this writer’s view, there is so much excellence in the raw material of West Side Story it would take a lot to make it anything other than HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Lyric’s West Side Story doesn’t detour from the original, delivering the feel that one expects from a Broadway, or touring Broadway in Chicago, production. The two stars do in fact have stellar musical theater pedigrees. As Mikaela Bennett sings the part of Maria we are reminded that if it is a Lyric production it is all about the music. Her voice is one that this writer would want to hear again and again in a concert hall. While she isn’t the agile presence of most of the triple threat cohort around her, she aptly conveys the adolescence of her role, both with her first love gropes and barely contained giddiness with the girls. For this writer, Corey Cott brings a new dimension to Tony by adding more of an actor’s actor type phrasing to his songs, whether he is perseverating about the word “Maria” or about “…something coming, something good..”. Similarly, spry Amanda Castro puts her imprimatur on her portrayal of Anita, shuffling any celluloid delivered visions of this part you may have aside.
Though fans of Chicago dance and theater might recognize some locally bloomed talents, most of these cast members are imports with Broadway cred similar to the leads. The tight ensemble of dancers from start to finish delivers Jerome Robbins’ choreography without modification, as promised by choreographer Julio Monge in the Picture this Post preview, Lyric Opera WEST SIDE STORY Preview — Conversation with Choreographer Julio Monge. Director Francesca Zambello and Conductor James Lowe similarly stick to the original. That means you get to savor anew the mirth of the Officer Krupke scene, the gang members’ body language, and the tragic death scene. Indeed, why on earth would one mess with success?
For this New York born and bred writer (who has logged many a mile through the decades walking streets on the transitioning Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem before gentrification), the set might be a bit underwhelming in delivering the feel of New York surrounds. You may want to cling to the celluloid version of West Side Story, with dancers memorably doing more scaling of chain link fences in ways that better convey the cage of real-world asphalt playgrounds. The Puerto Rican flag in Maria’s bedroom feels a bit anachronistic too, in a place where some of us might expect instead to see an oversized Madonna to be the décor focal point.
This is minor though—splitting hairs the way only a true West Side Story fanatic can and will. There was many a sniffle heard in the audience in the final dramatic death scene. This writer guesses it was the rare bird in the grand Lyric Opera hall who hadn’t wept at this scene before. If you love the movie—you will love this too; if you love live performance, you will love it all the more.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Book by ARTHUR LAURENTS
Music by LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM
Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by JEROME ROBBINS
Originally Produced on Broadway by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince
By Arrangement with Roger L. Stevens
Through June 2, 2019
Lyric Opera House,
20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.