Lyric Opera has staged a grand, traditional WEST SIDE STORY that serves as a veritable primer for this iconic musical. With director Francesca Zambello at the helm, who is no stranger to directing classic musicals, Lyric’s production celebrates the beauty and complexity of Leonard Bernstein’s stunning score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. All the hallmarks of a classic WEST SIDE STORY are present here, starting with the urban-yet-polished set design from Peter J. Davison (with that famous balcony intact)
Zambello has chosen to use Jerome Robbins’ timeless choreography for this production, here reproduced by Julio Monge. Robbins’ choreography communicates the divide between the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, immediately. And while the production does not update the material in any way (though some of Jessica Jahn’s costume designs seem decidedly 2019), the open hostility between these rival gangs has timely resonance. No member of either gang wishes to bridge the gap, and Robbins’ choreography makes that clear from the very first moment. I wish that the dancers’ lines were slightly cleaner, but it’s still a joy to behold Robbins’ iconic moves.
The music and vocals really take center stage in this WEST SIDE STORY. The large orchestra makes every note of Bernstein’s score sound lush and full, and the production is not wanting for strong singers. The “Tonight Quintet” near the end of the first act showcases the formidable vocals from this cast. It’s a complicated piece musically, and it’s rarely sounded better than it does here.
As star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, Corey Cott and Mikaela Bennett deftly handle the vocal challenges of their roles. Both of these parts have some of the most difficult vocals in the musical, in part to differentiate the world of love that Tony and Maria inhabit, separate from the gritty, hardened world of the Jets and the Sharks. While Cott’s delivery of “Something’s Coming” was somewhat tepid, he warmed up enough by the time he sang “Maria” to make that song one of the evening’s highlights. Cott milks every note of “Maria,” both vocally and emotionally. In that moment, it was easy to see the character’s infatuation with the young woman he had just met and also to see Cott’s vocal prowess on display. Bennett has an angelic voice, as she floats into each and every one of Maria’s high notes. Her singing voice also possesses a powerful maturity and command. Acting-wise, Bennett’s performance grows stronger over the course of the show, culminating in her stunning delivery of Maria’s final monologue.
Cott and Bennett also harmonize beautifully. When they sing “Tonight,” the song seems to float up above the world around them. Still, I did wish to see a bit more chemistry between these two actors. While I was convinced that both of them were in love during their solo moments, I didn’t always see that connection when they shared the stage. But if you’re hoping to hear some of WEST SIDE STORY’s most notable songs expertly sung, Cott and Bennett have that down.
Many of the musical’s other featured roles are essayed nicely, too. As the Jets’ leader Riff, Brett Thiele nails his character’s swagger and confidence. Thiele is also a gifted vocalist, making “The Jet Song” a rousing and determined song that he delivers with ease. Thiele is well-matched with Manuel Stark Santos as Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader. When Thiele and Santos go toe-to-toe, the tension feels real. I’d be remiss also not to mention Jarred Manista as Baby John; he gives one of the best acting performances of the night, capturing the character’s desire to ingratiate himself with the Jets without ever seeming over-the-top. Overall, all the performers capture the massive impasse that separates the Jets and the Sharks.
Lyric Opera’s WEST SIDE STORY showcases the beauty and the heartbreak of this classic musical, making it an excellent choice for first timers or those audience members (like me) who wish to revisit this iconic show.
WEST SIDE STORY runs through June 2 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets are $29-$219. LyricOpera.org/WSS
Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com