WEST SIDE STORY at Lyric Opera of Kansas City
by Alan Portner
Lyric Opera of Kansas City steps off its 2018-2019 season with a bravura interpretation of 1957's "West Side Story." It is difficult to say enough good things about this Lyric Opera of Kansas City presentation.
The Kansas City Symphony conducted by David Charles Abell is excellent. The Muriel Kauffman Theatre is spectacular. This stage setting by Peter J. Davison is an incredible example of the scenic designer's art. The actors and dancers (without exception) do great honor to the original material.
This joint production with the Houston Grand Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago honors the one hundredth birth anniversary of Composer Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein died in 1990, but if he could still be with us, he would have approved. The full house audience Saturday night at the Kauffman Center certainly approved.
When Hal Prince opened "West Side Story," exactly sixty-one years ago this week at the New York Winter Garden Theater, something monumental materialized. The social issues that made the play topical in 1957 remain just as relevant and top of mind in 2018.
"West Side Story" is a re-interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet." A creative dream team re-imagined Shakespeare as a story of racial and ethnic differences played out on the mean streets of Manhattan. In addition to Composer Leonard Bernstein, lyrics to the Bernstein melodies were written by a young Oscar Hammerstein protégé named Stephen Sondheim.
The first notion that eventually became this show sprang from the mind of Director and Choreographer Jerome Robbins, Playwright Arthur Laurents, and Composer Leonard Bernstein. Robbins' idea gestated for a decade before its final realization.
Bernstein's landmark score includes "Maria," "Tonight," "America," Something's Coming," "Somewhere," "I Feel Pretty", "A Boy Like That", "One Hand, One Heart", "Gee, Officer Krupke", and "Cool." Robbins' innovative use of dance to tell the story was and remains groundbreaking. Current choreographer Julio Monge follows Jerome Robbins' long ago vision.
"West Side Story" (at its heart) is the tragic love story of Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, (played by the superior soprano Vanessa Becerra), and Tony, a Polish boy, (sung by the excellent tenor Andrew Bidlack).
Tony with his best friend Riff (Brian Vu) are the titular founders of a New York street gang called the Jets. Tony has outgrown boyish things. He has left the Jets behind and found himself a job at a local drug store. He searches for a future beyond the block on which he grew up.
Similarly, Maria's best friend is Anita (Gabrielle McClinton) and the girlfriend to Maria's brother Bernardo (D.J. Petrosino). Bernardo leads a rival Latino street gang called the Sharks.
Neither gang likes the other, but the flash point between them is the budding relationship between Maria and Tony. The gangs agree to a rumble (a gang flight) to settle their differences. The fight gets out of control and both gang leaders die. Eventually Tony is killed out of revenge. Maria ends the play alone lamenting the pointlessness of it all.
In an era of burgeoning tribalism and fear of "the other," "West Side Story" retains its timeless appeal. It is fascinating to know that the original 1947 play idea happens on the lower east side, instead of the upper west side. The girl is Jewish. Her forbidden lover is Irish. The Jets are an Irish gang. The eventual Sharks are called the Emeralds, tough Jewish kids who survived the war. I guess the more things change the more they remain the same.
"West Side Story" continues on September 26, 28, and 30. This show is worth the seeing.