There's a place for us at LOC's West Side StoryReview
Cutting through the inordinately stubborn winter weather this year, West Side Story at the Lyric Opera of Chicago could not have come at a more opportune time: it’s the hottest show in the city right now and instantly dispels any lingering winter blues.
Conductor James Lowe brings to life Bernstein’s dazzling score with ebullience and an ear for expressive nuance.
Musical theater aficionados and newbies alike will find this a perfect night out. Acclaimed director Francesca Zambello is at the helm of this production of the beloved Broadway staple, which features the original direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins. There’s something to be said for such faithful revivals: sometimes you just don’t need to mess with a classic. Whereas I’m sure purists smiled in relief or nostalgia at the familiarity of the show and its look, newcomers to the genre (such as myself!) revelled in its irresistible energy, freshness, and vitality—a credit to Zambello’s masterful leadership.
Of course, it takes a village to mount any show successfully, but that’s doubly true for one as iconic as West Side Story. In the LOC’s current run, each component came together with a seamless synergy and amounted to something truly greater than the sum its parts. Peter J. Davison’s set designs were beautiful in how they captured the grit of 1950s New York while, on stage, they moved with the smoothness of a Swiss watch. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were the perfect complement: youthful, cool, and vibrant, particularly the girls’ dresses in the school-dance scene. Sound Designer Mark Grey and his team deserve a noteworthy shout-out. Whereas last season’s Jesus Christ Superstar was a bit on the loud side, the mixing in the house for this year’s West Side Story was spot on and comfortably clear.
The chemistry between Cott and Bennett was palpable and never throughout the show did I feel like I was watching anyone other than two lovestruck teenagers.
Conductor James Lowe brings to life Bernstein’s dazzling score with ebullience and an ear for expressive nuance. More a character in its own right than just accompaniment, the LOC Orchestra—never failing to astound—simply shimmered as a spectrum of sonic colors that matched those on stage.
The trio of lead singer-actors at the heart of this WSS could not have been better cast. As Tony we heard Corey Cott; Maria was played by Mikaela Bennett, and Anita by Amanda Castro—each of them making their Lyric debuts with this run. More than merely believable, these artists captured the essence of their characters while at the same time making them entirely their own. When playing such roles as Tony and Maria, straddling the line between saccharinity and youthful candour must be a challenge for the performer. The chemistry between Cott and Bennett was palpable and never throughout the show did I feel like I was watching anyone other than two lovestruck teenagers.
In his Act I song, “Maria,” Cott proved a sensitive musician, relishing each iteration of his beloved’s name with inspired nuances. Similarly, Bennett delivered an affecting performance of “Somewhere,” but it was in their Act I duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” that Cott and Bennett managed to make time stand still. Floating atop a velvety accompaniment from the pit, this moment was pure magic.
It’s amazing how all the charm and sweetness of Act I belies the gut-punch of Act II.
As Maria’s sassy and more worldly-wise friend Anita, Amanda Castro was the perfect foil to Bennet’s more wide-eyed impulses. Together with the other Sharks girls, Castro’s performance of the hit number “America” was hilarious in her delivery and stunning for her dancing. Indeed, the dancing, generally, in this production was just breathtaking. There are too many to name individually, but all the talented dancers in this show deserved the rousing ovation they received by night’s end. Robbins’ original choreography was beautiful as ever and brought to life with a freshness as if it was being done for the first time.
I love the unique energy and atmosphere at the Lyric Opera House during a musical-theater run.
Other standouts of the evening included Manuel Stark Santos’ portrayal of Bernardo as well as Brett Thiele’s Riff. Despite his character’s lack of solo number, Santos was brilliant in the role of Maria’s doomed brother. Like an old-time gang leader, there was a quiet intensity in his presence that drew one’s attention to whichever part of the stage he occupied. Conversely, Thiele brought an anxious energy to Riff that was at once agonizing and galvanizing. Even though, of course, I knew of this story’s roots in Romeo and Juliet, I was nonetheless shocked and heartbroken by these characters’ deaths in the Rumble scene and then watching the rapid unraveling of Maria and Tony’s lives in Act II. It’s amazing how all the charm and sweetness of Act I belies the gut-punch of Act II.
As I continue with my musicals education, I can only express the deepest gratitude for ventures like Broadway at Lyric. I love the unique energy and atmosphere at the Lyric Opera House during a musical-theater run. The crowds are always so diverse, vibrant, and yes, youthful—exactly the kind of demographics that big, old-fashioned American opera houses need in this day and age.
Yes, there is a place for us and it’s at the Lyric Opera House for West Side Story, the perfect cap to LOC’s 2018-19 season. See it before the run ends on June 2nd.