Theater Review: WEST SIDE STORY (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on June 7, 2023

in Theater-Chicago


Lyric Opera’s 2022-2023 season has been a challenging one, especially for audiences. The season began with the seldom-performed Verdi opera Don Carlos that had a run time of nearly four hours; it was followed by yet another obscure Verdi opera. The world premiere of The Factotum was challenging in a different way, putting our city’s own violence and police brutality on center stage. Carmen challenged audiences to see Bizet’s eponymous heroine not as a gypsy, but as one of the Roma people. Interspersed with these works, however, were lighter or more fantastical fare like Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. West Side Story finishes the season in similarly dual fashion, entertaining us with its beloved song and dance, but challenging audiences with its depictions of gun violence and racism.

Although West Side Story premiered in 1957, it still feels surprisingly contemporary sixty-six years later. Partly this comes from the timelessness of the Shakespearean source material. There is also the creative dream team of Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who transposed Romeo and Juliet into a modern American musical. Unfortunately, it also feels contemporary because the social problems portrayed are still with us. Even the poverty and ambiguous status of Puerto Rico remains unchanged.

Director Francesca Zambello modifies West Side Story ever so slightly. Doc — as in Steven Spielberg’s film version — is curiously cast as a woman, played by Genevieve VenJohnson. And some of the Jets are cast as African American instead of white. The specificity of mid-century New York has gone; instead, the action could occur in any American metropolis. Costume designer Jessica Jahn has updated the clothing just a bit, too. Hair styles are also more contemporary, as are the tattoos. Peter J Davison’s set designs are evocative and flexible, allowing scenes to change with a minimum of fuss.

One of the main reasons for seeing this particular production of West Side Story is because of the resources that Lyric can bring to it, from the size of the stage to the professionalism of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. This helps to ensure the quality of the musical performance, from the dynamic opening scenes to the lyricism of “Somewhere.” Lyric’s vast stage, the largest in Chicago, provides plenty of space for the cast’s dozens of dancers to move beautifully and gracefully. Indeed, the dancing is one of the highlights of this show.

The opera’s star-crossed lovers are superbly played by Ryan McCartan as Tony and Kanisha Feliciano as Maria. McCartan uses his wonderfully clear tone and soaring falsetto to soulful effect in such songs as “Maria” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Unfortunately, Feliciano’s more textured voice with its bright vibrato doesn’t blend so well with McCartan’s. Amanda Castro as Anita serves up a generous portion of sass and charisma in songs like “America” and in her dancing and acting more generally. She is a delight to behold.

There was some trouble with the sound quality at the beginning of the performance, but was quickly fixed. And it was freeing not to have supertitles to read, even though there was some dialogue in Spanish. Although this production (co-produced with Houston Grand Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival) first came to Chicago in 2019, it’s well worth seeing again. And again. Next season opens with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman on September 23.

photos by Todd Rosenberg

West Side Story
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on June 25, 2023
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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