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Review: Fresh Talent and Palpable Energy Deliver a Can’t Miss West Side Story

By Lisa Trifone

At a typical (however one defines that) performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the accompanying program includes in each cast and crew bio the professional’s previous Lyric credits. The asterisks that indicate a Lyric debut are few and far between; certainly, the esteemed theater is a must-stop performance destination in any modern operatic career.

Which is what makes West Side Story‘s creative team, both on and off stage, so unique; by my count, more than 30 cast members make their Lyric debut in director Francesca Zambello’s ambitious, high-energy revival of the American classic. Even Jerome Robbins, credited with the original direction and choreography of the tragic Romeo and Juliet story, receives the asterisk, noting the first time the Lyric has presented this show (or any of his shows, apparently). Zambello herself has directed many well-received Lyric productions, but still—all of this new blood, from insanely talented actors in the lead roles to choreography that both honors and modernizes the iconic original, conspires to present a fresh, youthful and essential version of a classic that proves itself as relevant as ever more than 60 years after its debut.

With its book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story entered the American cultural zeitgeist after its wide release as a film starring Natalie Wood as Maria, a young Puerto Rican girl newly arrived in Manhattan, Richard Beymer as Tony, the local boy and former founder/member of the local hoodlum gang, the Jets, and Rita Moreno as Anita, Maria’s plucky, sassy best friend and go-between for the star-crossed lovers. If you’ve not yet caught the film in all its vibrant colors and scope at Music Box Theatre’s annual 70MM Festival, please make a note to do so the next time it comes around. But I digress…

Staging such a beloved musical is always risky, expectations being what they are with familiar material. Staging a beloved musical that is also a bit dated (as most content of days gone by is during these woke times of ours) is a feat of theatrical ego that is to either be condemned or commended, depending. Thanks to Zambello, her stellar cast, the driving, buoyant orchestrations by James Lowe and strong showings from aspects like costumes (Jessica Jahn) to lighting (Mark McCullough) to set design (Peter J. Davison), the West Side Story on at Lyric through June 2 is the latter. It is very, very much the latter.

Immediately evident at Saturday’s opening night performance was the sheer kinetic energy pulsing between the ensemble, the stars, the orchestra and the audience. These kids were jazzed to be on stage, and while some of that enthusiasm manifested itself in a missed cue here or a slightly mis-synced dance sequence there, these are quibbles for a show that on the whole more than earned its standing ovation during the curtain call. Corey Cott as Tony brings a fierce intensity balanced by a romantic’s heart, pacing his delivery from the get-go to be sure he leaves the room we’ll need for the flood of emotions in store in the second act. Mikaela Bennett as Maria is a revelation, with a soprano that is nothing short of angelic, whether in quiet duets with Cott or belting above the fray in show-stopping ensemble numbers. Together, their chemistry is evident from the first row to the last; I dare you not to feel anything in the show’s powerful final scenes.

And then there’s Amanda Castro as Anita, the role with perhaps the biggest metaphorical shoes to fill, so iconic is Rita Moreno’s portrayal of the saucy, sexy spitfire. Castro is more than a little familiar with the role, according to her bio, having played Anita in at least two previous productions, and it shows. She comes to the show ready to rumble, and leaves it all on the stage. Moreno would be proud.

At its heart, West Side Story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the “us vs. them” narrative, stubbornly persistent across eras and generations. The original staging placed the proceedings in then present day, drawing not only on the racial and economic tensions of the era but also addressing the rifts between police and civilians as well as old-world parents and their new-world teenagers. Nearly 20 years into the new millennium, it’s no easier to be confronted with these narratives and their damaging repercussions. And though this latest staging appears fairly ambiguous as to the era in which it’s set—there’s a ’50s diner and plenty of retro slang, but the costumes look a bit more modern, for example—there’s no mistaking just how compelling and moving the production remains.

You’re not meant to leave this ultimately heartbreaking show on a high note, ending as it does; it’s heavy and complicated and deserves contemplation. But thanks to such a spectacular staging and unforgettable performances, Lyric’s latest foray into Broadway productions proves another smashing success worth seeking out.

‘West Side Story’ revived as gritty, witty and bright at Lyric Opera

By Steven Oxman - For the Sun-Times

It all sounds simple enough. Choose one of the great American musicals, “West Side Story,” cast it with those rare triple-gifted performers who can act, sing and dance, invest in classy, gargantuan sets, and realize Leonard Bernstein’s rich score with a full-sized orchestra. Voila! Musical theatre euphoria!

Of course, it isn’t simple, but in the case of Lyric Opera’s superbly executed production of the 1957 musical inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” it certainly manifests aesthetic euphoria.

The performers don’t just need to act and sing, but do so simultaneously, as lyricist Stephen Sondheim — this show was his Broadway debut — incorporated witty, sophisticated storytelling and angry emotion as he and Bernstein unearthed the characters’ deepest emotions and the drama of the most significant scenes with the songs.

Corey Cott and Mikaela Bennett portray the doomed lovers Tony and Maria, who fall in love instantly and then find themselves on opposite sides of a growing gang war between the Jets — a mix of Italian, Polish and Irish used to having their way in their Manhattan ‘hood — and the Sharks, filled with newer arrivals from Puerto Rico.
Cott sets us up perfectly with “Something’s Coming,” in which he captures Tony’s optimism so strongly that it even later explains his failure to recognize how badly everything is about to go wrong.

Bennett, who must be considered the breakout star of this production, possesses a clarion soprano voice that’s bigger and more immaculate than traditional musical theater but far more grounded than opera. She’s the best Maria I’ve ever heard, and on top of that she captures the character’s naïve but absolutely unwavering passion.

The rest of the cast — including excellent performances from Amando Castro as Anita, Brett Thiele as Riff and Manuel Stark Santos as Bernardo — keeps up that high bar, and adds in the dancing. And it’s not just that they and the ensemble of Sharks and Jets have to dance well; it’s that they have to execute Jerome Robbins’ fast-paced, athletic-balletic original choreography on an opera-sized stage. It’s a workout just watching them.

“West Side Story” set a new standard for the sheer amount of choreography that could be in a Broadway show; Robbins even insisted on a highly extended original rehearsal time. There aren’t a lot of theaters in the country with the resources for a national search to draw a set of performers who can all execute at this level, and I can’t think of any recent show with such constant, thrilling injections of dynamism and adrenaline, always supported by that giant orchestra conducted by James Lowe.

Francesca Zambello’s production sticks to the script, you might say, providing a straightforward but always compelling take on the teen tragedy. The costumes from Jessica Jahn get an update — there are plenty of moto-pants and camo designs onstage that you might see in this month’s GQ, and the guys have a lot of tattoos, including on their shoulders and necks. I’m pretty sure that was a picture of Sonia Sotomayor hanging on Maria’s second-story bedroom wall, thanks to set designer Peter J. Davison.

But with only an exception or two, these were not particularly in-your-face infusions of the contemporary. After all, the use of fisticuffs and even switchblades for gang battles brings us back pretty quickly to a time where the appearance of a gun could still surprise. If you authentically update “West Side Story” too much, you either get each scene abbreviated with the entrance of AK-47s, or perhaps a bar fight between rival Wall Street firms attending Lincoln Center, which now sits where this action was set in the ’50s. Zambello’s goal here seems to have been to add modernisms so as not to distract us from the story — so you don’t wonder, “Oh, that’s what they were wearing in those days?”

Smartly, though, Zambello does amp up the corrupt potential of the cops. The cops here can often tend toward the comic, but here actors Bret Tuomi and Jerry Kernion manage to make the cops genuinely menacing without losing the touch of buffoonishness so expertly mocked with the sociologically astute piece “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which serves as a bit of comic (but still biting) relief as the show descends into the tragic.

That number is followed by my personal favorite scene in this whole show, which is saying a lot in a show that’s as consistently great as this one. The duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” performed by Bennett and Castro with realistic but inflamed intensity, captures all the swirling emotions — love, anger, grief, despair — that Bernstein and Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents and Robbins have to offer.

Lyric Opera has a great, traditional 'West Side Story' that believes in the original

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune

The current, vociferous debate over classic Broadway musicals is not unlike that over the Constitution of the United States. On the one hand, you have those who argue that the Constitution should be a living, breathing document, the intent of the framers subservient to the changing needs of a dynamic, diversified nation, increasingly rejecting the power structure baked into its founding. On the other, you have those originalists who argue that the intent of the gifted creators is everything, that the power of their work is not dimmed by time, and that those who do not see relevance for this moment simply are not looking with enough rigor.

Which brings me to “West Side Story,” which opened Saturday night at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

What you are buying here is an originalist production, as traditional a staging as you ever now are likely to see. Director Francesca Zambello’s long-established production, which already has been seen all over the world in various iterations — both indoors and outdoors — returns to the original Jerome Robbins choreography, as reproduced here by Julio Monge. Robbins’ name might appear in every program of every production, but his work is now more frequently ignored, replaced or at least modified (choreographers prefer the word “adapted” to “reproduced”). Dance is the primary narrative vehicle in this iconic musical, so the choice to go with the original steps fully dictates, well, most everything. And that ensemble crouch, maybe the greatest starting position in the history of Broadway, still has all its power.

Actually, you could call this show more original than the original, in that you are hearing the full orchestrations, only with more players than were in the Winter Garden Theatre in 1957. The cast of about 50 is similarly expansive, and, of course, the stagehouse of the Lyric accommodates far wider vistas than any Broadway theater. Many productions use metaphors of urban claustrophobia — this set, by the British designer Peter J. Davison, offers acres of space for rumbles, romanticized. Chico, it eventually turns out, is a very good shot.

The look of this “West Side” is both retro and theatrical; it has much in common with other European or operatic stagings I’ve seen and has little referent in social reality. How true that was in 1957 is open to debate.

Opera and big theater companies often trumpet their use of original orchestrations. But if you’re watching “Oklahoma!,” you can survive without them (as they are doing right now on Broadway). Same with “My Fair Lady.” But not “West Side Story.”

As I listened to Leonard Bernstein’s score again on Saturday night, a suite of searing, soaring melodies offering a high far superior to any that will be soon for sale in the state of Illinois following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pending legislation, I kept thinking how much all of these musicians add to the experience.

Consider the song, “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love,” a composition with thrills hidden like Easter eggs, so much so that I sat there just willing the next stanza to come quickly and then, once the duet between Anita and Maria gets to “When loves come so strong / There is no right or wrong,” wanting time to stop. Forever. What greater emotional sound ever entered anyone’s ears?

With Bernstein at his shoulder, this was one of Stephen Sondheim’s first lyrical declarations of what love can achieve, what it can solve, but also how much it threatens the entrenched. Love, he was writing, is the only thing that ever can get us out of our own lanes. And the haters will knife it in the heart.

When you have that, what conceptual revisionism do you really need? Lyric’s production has a formidable Tony in Corey Cott. I’ve seen newbies and veterans do this role and Cott pitches right down the middle; his work has wisdom as well as hope and when he cries you believe what he feels. It takes a while for Mikaela Bennett, who plays Maria, to gain vocal and dramatic confidence, but then that is Maria’s own journey and, in Act 2, Bennett is very moving, if not as connected to Cott as would be ideal in both performances.

I’ve seen more expressionistic stagings that better have separated the lovers, taken them more explicitly away into the place of peace of which they dream, but here, they are of their world, which is how Robbins wanted them. Both Amanda Castro, who plays Anita, and Manuel Stark Santos, as Bernardo, are exceptional dancers. (Santos really is formidable in all ways.) I’ve seen more ebullient Anitas, but Castro shows us a depth of anxiety; watch her and you’ll think about Anita’s own hopes and dreams, the extent to which Maria is really an extension of her own self. It’s very touching in a way you may not have noticed before.

In art, if not in Supreme Court politics, originalism doesn’t have to be political. Here you see a belief that a “West Side Story,” especially anyone’s first “West Side Story,” should first honor the creators. You have to be a fool to think that a line like “Every one of you hates every one of us and we hate you right back” does not still apply, and that love and art must combine in determined avoidance.

People make a lot of dictates about musicals these days, insisting on their complying to a contemporary point of view. Often, all it takes is context and tolerance, and an understanding that not everyone has seen them a hundred times before, to believe that the very best of them already do. Mayor Pete has nothing on "I have a love ..."

Review: “West Side Story” (3.5 stars)
When: Through June 2
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $39-$219 at 312-827-5600 and

A star-making performance and Bernstein’s magnificent score boost Lyric Opera’s “West Side Story”

By Lawrence A. Johnson

At the end of the Quintet at Saturday’s opening-night performance of West Side Story, Mikaela Bennett as Maria cut loose with a gleaming final top note that soared over the entire ensemble, delivering one of the most thrilling vocal moments heard at Lyric Opera all season.

The company is presenting Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway classic as its spring musical this year. And, while not quite everything worked in Francesca Zambello’s production, the singing, dancing and musical values were consistently outstanding, making Lyric Opera’s colorful and exuberant West Side Story an inspirational coda to the 2018 Bernstein centennial celebration.

American musical theater was changed forever on September 26, 1957 when West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. With a book by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Jerome Robbins and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, the brilliant and audacious scenario updated Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to contemporary New York tenement slums, with the two-star-crossed lovers caught between warring American and Puerto Rican street gangs.

As extraordinary as all the creative elements were—not least Robbins’ remarkable mix of balletic elegance and punchy modern-dance vitality— it is Bernstein’s magnificent score that makes West Side Story the greatest of all American musicals. While there are inspired moments in Candide and worthy sections in his Serenade and Second Symphony, West Side Story remains Bernstein’s masterpiece, with music that is tough and cynical, edgy in its jazzy syncopations, yet melodically rich, beautiful and heart-breaking, a show that remains fresh, moving and effective today 62 years after its premiere.

A coproduction with the Glimmerglass Festival and Houston Grand Opera, Zambello’s staging is faithful to the original production and mostly successful for that reason. Crucially, she uses Robbins’ original choreography, recreated here with high-stepping vitality by Julio Monge.

The dance sequences were glorious, put across with balletic grace and youthful exuberance by all of the cast members. The Dance at the Gym was electrifying in its rhythmic punch and sonic and visual impact, while “Cool” was equally arresting in its jazzy bite and aggressive defiance.

Yet when the music and dancing stopped, things became more dicey and Saturday’s opening-night performance felt on shakier ground.

Reflecting the current trend in musical theater, Zambello seemed like she was attempting to set a land-speed record in trying to get through dialogue as quickly as humanly possible. Whether trying to establish strong dramatic momentum or stave off any perceived audience boredom, the hyper-caffeinated direction felt far too rushed and frenetic at times. Even the balcony scene between Tony and Maria felt hectic and hurried along, as if trying to get through all that boring love talk quickly to get to “Tonight.” Overall, there was a lack of a sense of breadth and space for the story’s quiet and more intimate moments.

Similarly, in the opening scenes it seemed like everyone was trying too hard and shouting their lines, with the Jets unable to deliver a sentence without punching each other in the shoulder (one of many overdone bits of physical stage business).

Laurents’ cynical streetwise humor mostly fell flat with some of the funniest lines either lost by being garbled or rendered leaden by emphatic crotch-grabbing physical gestures.

Fortunately, the musical elements made up the balance.

Leading the cast was Mikaela Bennett in a star-making performance as Maria. Only a year out of Juilliard, Bennett won acclaim for her 2018 title role creation in Michael Gordon’s offbeat opera Acquanetta.

Bennett is blessed with a sensational soprano voice that fits the music and character of Maria like a well-tailored glove. Fresh, radiant, pure of tone and flexible with secure top notes, there is a youthful innocence in her very timbre. When she began singing “Tonight,” all doubts about the production flew away (like the world in Sondheim’s lyrics). Throughout her vocalism was a pleasure to the ears, not least in her vivacious, “I Feel Pretty” and lovely rendering of “Somewhere” (wisely given to Maria in this production rather than “A Girl” offstage, as in the original.).

Dramatically, some of Bennett’s physical gestures occasionally seemed mannered and overdone, like her quivering hands. Yet she was largely convincing painting her character’s arc, charting Maria from a girlish teen to a woman deeply in love, and a broken victim of gang violence at the end of the evening. Bennett brought a scary intensity to Maria’s final anguished outburst of anger and emotional breakdown.

As Tony, Maria’s doomed beloved, Corey Cott’s performance was more mixed and felt decidely like a work in progress opening night. The young actor seemed nervous in the opening minutes, his solidly sung “Something’s Coming” undone by distracting, over-elaborate arm gestures, as if offering a simultaneous semaphore version as a bonus. “Maria” went better, sweetly sung with a warm light tenor and the soft high final notes nailed. Cott’s voice blended gratefully with Bennett’s in “One Hand, One Heart.”

Cott was uneven as an actor, his soft-grained Tony making it hard to believe that this guy had ever been a Jets gang member. Zambello’s rushed and haphazard direction of the balcony scene didn’t help with Cott’s casually awkward “I love you” to Maria eliciting laughter opening night. (Romantic scenes are not Zambello’s strong point.) Cott did bring apt emotional intensity to the final scene when he thinks Maria has been killed, though some of his desperate cries were on the shrieky side.

Amanda Castro was a superb and sassy Anita, Maria’s friend and girlfriend to her brother Bernardo. A wonderfully flamboyant dancer, Castro sang admirably, leading a feisty “America,” and brought daunting rage to the role when Anita is molested by the Jets when attempting to warn Tony.

Equally versatile was Brett Thiele as Riff, leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend. Robust of voice and a credible actor, Thiele is a terrific dancer, pulling off astoundingly acrobatic somersaults in the Dance at the Gym that even rival Russ Tamblyn in the movie.

As his Sharks counterpart, Manuel Stark Santos etched an imposing portrayal of Bernardo, and was also strong dramatically and as a dancer.

The rest of the Jets (Adam Sniak as Action, Taylor Simmons as A-Rab, Jarred Manista as Baby John, Wesley Ryan as Big Deal, Jeffrey C. Sousa as Diesel, Paul HeeSang Miller as Gee-Tar and Juan Caballer as Tiger) were a lively, big-voiced gang and excellent dancers, if more clownishly boisterous than genuinely funny in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Alexa Magro was aptly tomboyish as the Jet wanna-be Anybodys.

The Sharks (Julio Rey as Chino, Mark Deler as Pepe, Joshua Lamar as Indio, Joseph A. Hernandez as Luis, Greg Blackmon as Anxious, Michal J. Rio as Nibbles, Martin Ortiz Tapia as Juano and Sebastian Garcia as Toro) sang and danced just as well while playing the Puerto Rican gang at a less frantic level, and were the better for it.

Their girlfriends proved equally agile and colorful led by Kyra Sorce (Graziella),

Veronica Sofia Burt (Velma), Linedy Genao (Rosalia), Alexandra Matteo (Consuelo) and Addie Morales (Francisca).

The supporting non-musical roles were well taken by all. Bret Tuomi made an odious Lieutenant Schrank, and Jerry Kernion an equally loutish Officer Krupke. David Alan Anderson was a humane Doc, and Ed Kross an amusingly ineffectual Glad Hand.

Peter J. Davison’s revolving sets are traditional and largely effective—enclosed by ominous tenement-like metallic scaffolding with prison-like fencing and overhead highway for the rumble, minimalist furniture and neon for Doc’s drugstore, and colorful festooned balloons and lights for the Dance at the Gym. Less successful was having Maria’s bedroom high above on a bilevel platform—a decidedly tiny and cramped space for “I Feel Pretty”—and far too distant from the audience for Maria’s crucial Act II scenes with Tony and Anita.

Jessica Jahn’s costuming is a stylish mix of period and contemporary youthful anti-social cool. The amplification sounded well opening night with dialogue clear yet not overwhelming in volume, and voices effectively balanced over the orchestra.

Apart from a too-quick leap into “I Feel Pretty,” which had Mikaela Bennett scrambling to catch up, James Lowe’s conducting of this score was virtually faultless. He brought fine romantic warmth to “Somewhere,” One Hand One Heart” and Tonight” and crackling energy and high-stepping panache to the dance episodes.

The pit ensemble, composed largely of Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians, showed impressive versatility at morphing into a crack Bernstein band. A couple early entrances and an ill-tuned violin solo apart, the players brought great lyric ardor to Bernstein’s soaring ballads, and fizzing drive and rhythmic incisiveness to the dances.

West Side Story runs through June 2.

Bravura Revival of ‘West Side Story’ Marks Lyric’s Finest Broadway Venture

Hedy Weiss

What a dazzling convocation of geniuses came together to create the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story”: Composer Leonard Bernstein; lyricist Stephen Sondheim; director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. And yes, a nod to William Shakespeare, too, whose ever-timely tale of “Romeo and Juliet” (adapted by Arthur Laurents) sadly continues to ring true in a tale of warring families and star-crossed lovers.

Watching Saturday’s opening night performance of the electrifying Lyric Opera revival of the musical – a coproduction with Houston Grand Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival that is by far the finest production in the seven years of Broadway at Lyric’s programming – not only served as a reminder of how innovative “West Side Story” was in terms of its seamless hybrid of classical, opera, jazz and Latin music and dance, and its use of streetwise slang. But its handling of social, political and cultural themes also broke new ground as it tackled issues of gang turf wars, police tactics, animosity toward new immigrants, cross-cultural relationships, sexual violence, and even feelings about Puerto Rico.

Best of all, the Lyric production demonstrates how, without straining to “modernize” or rework the musical – but by maintaining total respect for its vintage truth and beauty – its enduring power can be fully released. And the meticulously detailed work of director Francesca Zambello and her cast and creative team makes it clear that in many ways “West Side Story” was the “Hamilton” of its time. (And, as it happens, that cross-generational connection is real, for as is widely known, Sondheim has long been a model, and even a mentor, for Lin-Manuel Miranda.)

Set on New York’s Upper West Side (in a raw, working-class neighborhood that would soon be redeveloped and gentrified as the site of Lincoln Center), the musical signals it is something different right out of the box – with a thrilling prologue that takes the form of a jazz ballet danced by the Jets and the Sharks – the rival gangs (white and Puerto Rican) who trade insults and fuel tempers at every opportunity.

Dance is the driving, vividly expressive, intensely demanding language used throughout this show. And Robbins’ original choreography has been superbly “reproduced” here by Julio Monge (a collaborator and consultant on Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film remake of the musical), with a cast of triple-threat actor-singer-dancers who are totally true to their characters yet avoid all the familiar clichés.

At the same time, the beauty and complexity of the operatic spine that supports Bernstein’s astonishing, virtuosic score has rarely been more clear. Credit the phenomenal young soprano, Mikaela Bennett, who uses her golden, richly emotional, octave-spanning, pitch-perfect voice with exceptional naturalness and ease as Maria, the Puerto Rican teenager discovering first love. And credit tenor Corey Cott as Tony – the son of Polish immigrant parents who has tried to sever his ties with the Jets, and senses a better future than gang warfare awaits him.

When Bennett and Cott sing together – whether in “Tonight,” their iconic duet on a fire escape “balcony,” or in “One Hand, One Heart,” the mock wedding ceremony witnessed by mannequins in the dress shop where Maria works – they not only generate a lovely and believable chemistry, but also bring a sense of Puccini-style Italian grand opera fully back to life without ever losing the sense that this is a Broadway musical. A neat trick that is all too rarely carried off in opera house productions.

The same heated operatic passion comes through in Bennett’s duet with Amanda Castro, the explosive dancer and spitfire actress who plays Anita, the sharp-edged, no-nonsense girlfriend of Maria’s brother, Bernardo (Manuel Stark Santos). The two women join for the fierce and anguished war of words in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” and all but burn up the stage.

And there is so much more. For example, the ingenious way in which Bernstein and Sondheim transformed the essential melody of “Tonight” to serve double duty as both that feverish duet and a rallying cry for a quintet of characters anticipating the catastrophic rumble between the gangs. (This two-sided use of the melody has rarely been so clearly revealed.)

Then there is Cott’s moving, poetic take on the hope-filled “Something’s Coming”; the musical chairs-like “Dance at the Gym” that so vividly shifts from flamboyant, jazzy swing to fabulous mambo; and the fast, funny and oh-so-timely “America,” in which Castro’s Anita celebrates her life in New York while her friend, Rosario (Linedy Genao) waxes nostalgic for Puerto Rico.

Of course there’s the finger-snapping impatience of “Cool,” with the terrific ensemble of dancing Jets led by Riff (Brett Thiele). And even if the term “juvenile delinquent” has an almost quaint ring to it these days, the blistering self-satire of the Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke” has never felt more biting, just as the girly get-together of “I Feel Pretty” has never felt so fresh.

As Anybody, the girl who desperately wants to be one of the boys, Alexa Magro bursts with thwarted energy. David Alan Anderson brings a controlled calm to the role of Doc, the drugstore owner disgusted by the futile gang violence. Jerry Kernion is spot-on as Krupke, the old school-style cop. And Ed Kross is just clueless enough as the clueless high school principal. And, to the credit of each member of the cast (and sound designer Mark Grey and diction coach Kate DeVore), every lyric is crystal clear.

Peter J. Davison’s fluid set, with its interesting architectural elements, chain-link fencing, and urban signage, leaves plenty of room for the crucial dance scenes (and fight choreographer Nick Sandys’ vivid rumble action), but also features raised interior areas that bring greater focus to the more intimate scenes.

And last but not least there is the Lyric Orchestra and conductor James Lowe, which brings every riff in Bernstein’s powerhouse score to vivid life.

Although for many people the magic of “West Side Story” has come solely by way of the classic 1961 film version of the musical, seeing it live, and on such a grand scale, is bound to be a whole new experience.

In addition, it would be difficult to imagine a more ideal (if just slightly belated) “grand finale” to what has been a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth, in 1918, of both Bernstein and Robbins than this production. Sondheim, of course, is still very much alive, with a slew of other masterpieces to his credit. And while Harry Warren’s “42nd Street” – that irresistible Depression-era dance-a-thon – has already been announced as Lyric’s Broadway production for next season, I’m hoping the powers that be will find a way to bring Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” to the stage very soon.

Meanwhile, try to see this “West Side Story.” And be warned: The impulse to dance down the concrete sidewalks outside the opera house might just grab hold of you.

“West Side Story” runs through June 2 at Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. For tickets ($29-$219) call (312) 827-5600 or visit
Tags: amanda castro, corey cott, mikaela bennett, productions

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