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 lyricopera.org/wss. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic