Music by Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Arthur Laurents


Lyric Opera

May 3 – June 2 2019

Reviewed by Ruth Smerling




Every once in a while a Broadway Musical comes along that creates a must-see sensation.  Now people line up for miles around the country to see Linn-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinary Hip Hop history lesson, Hamilton.  Before that there was the revolutionary Hair.  But even before Hair bared all, there was the remake of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet  - West Side Story.  With its iconic, jazz-influenced music and lively dance numbers, West Side Story, created by the dream team of Arthur Laurents on book, Leonard Bernstein on music and a young Stephen Sondheim penning the lyrics told a brutal story of reverse gentrification when a poor neighborhood is suddenly forced to share their small world with strangers who looked different, spoke a different language and had a different culture.  When they tried to show them who was in charge they were met with violent opposition. 

Amid the violence and polarity formed by the gangs, there were dreamers like Tony (Corey Cott).  Though once a founding member of the Jets street gang, he wants to move on.  He has a job at Doc’s Drug Store (David Alan Anderson is Doc) and he knows that he’s slated for better things.  He explains this in the edgy song “Something’s Coming.”  He’s not really sure what’s in store for him, but he knows something is out there waiting for him to pursue and he won’t get it by being in a gang and breaking the law. 

His best friend and gang brother Riff (Brett Thiele) visits him and wakes him up quickly.  Reminding him that their turf is in jeopardy and they are going to have to fight the rival Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, if they want to stand their ground.  He reminds him that he is a fellow gang member “from womb to tomb” and must be there too.  They plan to go to war after the dance at the gym. 

At the dance Tony meets the beautiful Maria (Mikaela Bennett).  Despite the colorful, sexy wardrobe (Costumes by Jessica Jahn) for both side’s girlfriends, Maria, dressed in white, suddenly makes everyone else disappear to Tony.  It is love at first sight, like a lightning bolt through his heart.  Little does he know he’s courting disaster.  Maria is the sister of Bernardo (Manuel Stark Santos), the leader of the Sharks.  His girlfriend, Anita (Amanda Castro), warns her that Bernardo will kill him.  Plus, Maria is spoken for.  She’s going to marry Chino (Julio Rey) and live happily ever after.  All the ingredients for catastrophe simmer at the dance.  But Tony refuses to accept it.  He believes his love for this wonderful woman has allowed him to rise high above a turf war, petty jealousy and has even busted him out of the gang.  While the two gangs battle on the street, Tony crosses all lines and visits Maria where they experience the greatest moments of their lives, unaware of any unrest around them. 

Until West Side Story hit Broadway, musicals were cheery, witty and fun events.  This one breaks the mold with a tragic story of star-crossed lovers, transplanted from Shakespeare’s Italy to a more modern setting with a musical score that encapsulates a lot of emotional tremor.  There are comic moments like “Gee Officer Krupke” when the Jets poke fun at police investigation.  When the Sharks and their women start to count their blessings, Anita and friends come up with a sarcastic retort about “America” and how they are not well off in America, but just off the poor island they came from. 

The Lyric Opera House is a fitting venue for West Side Story.  Like most great operas, there is conflict, tragedy, death and epiphany.  The music is iconic and has even influenced artists like the late Michael Jackson who was said to have been inspired by the dance numbers.  The music captures all the angst and fear of an uncertain world, on a brilliant set designed by Peter J. Davison, with an endless wire fence imprisoning the rival gangs determined to destroy each other to lay claim to their part of the world. 

West Side Story with unforgettable story, iconic characters and exciting music and dance, runs through June 2 at the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker (Madison and Wacker).  For tickets and information visit www.lyric.org