Grand ‘West Side Story’ revival proves there’s a place for musical theater at the opera house

Propulsive Lyric Opera staging of the masterpiece pays careful attention to shaping the characters.

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Kanisha Feliciano Ryan McCartan in Lyric Opera’s “West Side Story”

Kanisha Feliciano plays Maria opposite Ryan McCartan as Tony in Lyric Opera’s “West Side Story.”

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Conglomerations of talent don’t always guarantee success in show business, but it absolutely did in the case of “West Side Story.”

Four of the great creative minds of the 20th century — composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins and playwright Arthur Laurents — came together to conceive a transformative, of-the-moment Broadway musical that opened in 1957 to enormous acclaim.

In 2019, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a new staging of this enduring masterpiece, a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. It returned to that production Friday evening, opening a super-charged and touching revival.

Lyric Opera of Chicago — ‘West Side Story’

west side story

When: Through June 25

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $30-$225


With a 49-member cast and chorus, a 43-member pit orchestra and the massive expanse of the Lyric Opera House stage, it is the kind of large-scale treatment of this musical that only an opera company could muster. And it’s one that makes sense given the show’s sprawling setting on the streets of New York City.

“West Side Story” transports Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to New York’s Upper West Side of the 1950s, with the Montague and Capulet families replaced by warring street gangs of diverse ethnicities, in this case, the Sharks and the Jets.

Thu, Jun 1, 2023 — The Company of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s West Side Story - photo Todd Rosenberg

The set of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “West Side Story” hews to a 1950s New York look.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Although elements of this musical, including its treatment of ethnic differences, don’t always square with today’s cultural sensitivities, stage director Francesca Zambello and Lyric’s artistic leaders wisely chose to hew to the original text with virtually no changes.

This musical is inevitably a product of its time, but it also defiantly transcends that time. Indeed, its exploration of violence, poverty and ethnic strife still seems powerfully relevant in a society still struggling to overcome these persistent problems.

No doubt to try to stress this continuing relevance, Zambello chose to subtly update this production to more or less present day. The move is only telegraphed by Jessica Jahn’s costumes, which include one character, for example, wearing a Patrick Ewing New York Knicks tank top. It’s a puzzling decision because the time change is at odds, for example, with references in the musical to “rumbles,” a term for street fights now long out of date.

Peter J. Davison’s striking, ambitious set, however, hews to a 1950s New York look, with its angled, three-story building facades on the sides of the stage and its silhouettes of Manhattan’s once-ubiquitous rooftop water towers at the rear — all accented by Mark McCullough’s handsome lighting.

Overall, though, Zambello does not make any big interpretative statements here. She simply chooses to showcase the innate power of this musical with a vibrant, propulsive staging and careful attention to shaping the characters.

Also deserving note is Joshua Bergasse, who masterfully reproduces Robbins’ extraordinary jutting and jousting, snapping and strutting choreography that plays such an integral role in telling this story.

Yurel Echezarreta (left, as Bernardo) and Amanda Castro as Anita with the Company of Lyric Opera’s “West Side Story.”

Yurel Echezarreta (left, as Bernardo) and Amanda Castro (as Anita) with the company of Lyric Opera’s “West Side Story.”

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

This musical requires performers who are “triple threats” as actors, singers and dancers, and Lyric Opera assembled an absolutely first-rate cast led by Broadway’s Ryan McCartan in his Lyric debut. He shows real star power as Tony, a member of the Jets who tries and tragically fails to stop the cycle of gang violence. This fresh-faced performer has a wonderfully natural voice that he used Friday night to uplifting effect in “Maria,” Tony’s proclamation of newfound (and ultimately star-crossed) love — drawing an extended, well-deserved ovation.

He is nicely matched by Kanisha Feliciano as Maria, a vibrant performer with a pure, clarion voice. Together they are completely convincing as young, blindly idealistic lovers. One of the musical’s showiest roles is that of Anita (Amanda Castro), the girlfriend of Maria’s brother, Bernardo (Yurel Echezaretta, in his Lyric debut), the leader of the Sharks. Castro makes the most of it with her high-energy, acrobatic dancing and big, brash singing style.

Other standouts include Brett Thiele as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and Nathan Keen, who aptly conveys the quick-temper edginess of Action, a member of the Jets who shines in the dark-humored song, “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

The singers are solidly backed by conductor James Lowe, who clearly knows his way around this score. He never allows the show’s all-important drive and momentum to flag, and he makes sure the Lyric pit orchestra gives rich, energetic voice to Bernstein’s jazzy, driving score.

The Company of Lyric Opera’s West Side Story - photo Todd Rosenberg

Dancers perform in “West Side Story” at the Lyric Opera House.

Todd Rosenberg

There are still some people who question opera houses presenting musicals, but such views wrongly downgrade the value of such works and misunderstand the contemporary role of such companies as guardians and presenters of high-quality music theater of whatever kind.

As this production makes vividly clear, “West Side Story” is as musically substantive and theatrically compelling as any American opera, and it deserves to have a place on the opera stage just as it does on the Great White Way.

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