West Side Story is certainly one of the most beloved American musicals. The catchy and propulsive songs, the energetic dances, the moving story which is at turns humorous, romantic and painful, all contribute to its massive success as a crowd pleaser. Even though most showgoers know that the story ends with tragic notes, many continue to see this one-of-a-kind- performance time and again.
The typical audience member knows West Side Story from watching the original film, which won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Picture along with nine other Oscars that year. Many fans will also recall the story from the 2021 film directed by Steven Spielberg (which earned an Academy Award). Many thousands of theater goers have seen theatrical productions of West Side Story, on Broadway and in other major markets, as well as in local theaters and countless numbers of school auditoriums.
Now the Lyric Opera of Chicago is staging its version of this classic, and it borrows contemporary details from the recent film version as well as the 2020 Broadway production, directed by Ivo van Hove. However, this Chicago staging hews closer to the traditional staging, as compared to the unusual media working of Hove’s version, whose run was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is the dilemma in staging an evergreen musical such as West Side Story: do the producers put on a show that is similar to the familiar, or take a wildly different direction and put on a daring and atypical production? Should producers go with the tried and true, which can be viewed as comforting and a nostalgia piece; or go with a new, less traveled style?
Having seen the Ivo van Hove production in 2020, which was somewhat abrasive and confusing (with video screens and peculiar angles) as well as both films versions, and a high school version that went the traditional path, I’m glad to see that the Lyric’s version is mostly tried-and-true, with some cosmetic updates. Let the cast shine with the songs and dances. One interesting carryover from the 2021 film is that Doc (played by Rita Moreno, the original Anita) is also a woman in this Chicago staging.
In other details this West Side Story is contemporary: Maria has a Bad Bunny poster on her bedroom wall, as well as a photo of SCOTUS Justice Sotomayor (in the 1950s would she have had an Elvis Presley poster?). But this production cuts fairly close, in major ways, to the traditional staging, as opposed to the controversial and disconcerting production by van Hove.
The Lyric’s version on stage is generous in its numbers, with nearly 50 cast and chorus members and over 40 musicians in the orchestra. Ryan McCartan as Tony performs well as his voice shines, and Kanisha Feliciano as Maria is wonderful, touching, sweet voiced when necessary.
West Side Story is more than just the leads as one of my favorite characters is also quite exciting to watch in the Chicago version. Baby John, who was played by Eliot Feld in the 1961 film, and was played by Matthew Johnson in the 2020 Broadway version (who also performed in the Edward R. Murrow High School version in 2017) is Maurice Dawkins in Chicago. Chino, who takes on the horrifying crime at the musical’s end, is played this time by the rather youthful looking Mark Daniel Aguirre.
Also worthy in her role is Amanda Castro as Anita, perhaps one of the most complex in the show, and should not be underestimated. In many ways Anita is the heart of West Side Story, and her singing and spoken lines will capture the audience in a special way.
Also notable for this Lyric’s staging is the director, Francesca Zambello, who by mixing in contemporary touches with the beloved traditional aspects, has brought us a production that is highly enjoyable.
West Side Story in Chicago can be seen throughout June; don’t miss your opportunity to witness it.
West Side Story
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission
– Ellen Levitt, S&P