‘West Side Story’ Told As Music-Drama, Its Tragic Veracity Intact

The Jets played it ‘Cool’ in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of ‘West Side Story.’ (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

CHICAGO — Few stage works have had such a checkered route to immortality as West Side Story. Just in recent years, major productions arrived partly in Spanish, cut and modernized by the fashionable director Ivo Van Hove, and framed by expansive Expressionistic cityscapes in the recent Steven Spielberg film remake. And the European touring production in the late 1980s on YouTube? Well, even in the best circumstances, the show’s core experience has eluded its producers and even its composer, Leonard Bernstein.

The unlikely exception was the June 24 West Side Story performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which members of the Music Critics Association of North America saw during their annual meeting. And I do mean this specific date: Two understudies showed — in different ways — why this opera company with a 3,563-seat house (the second largest opera space in the U.S.) enjoys box office and critical successes with multi-week runs of Broadway musicals — in one of America’s most sophisticated, competitive theater towns.

Much is made of West Side Story’s hybrid status, which makes this outing (also seen in the 2019 season) a particular triumph: The show’s performance history is on Broadway, but its dramatic weight has a level of social relevance that shows how American musical theater can be much more than entertainment. During the show’s gestation, Bernstein’s ideas were repeatedly rejected as too operatic (according to his personal correspondence), though decades later, he said West Side Story is definitely a musical because the final, crucial death scene is told in words, despite the composer’s efforts to write a grand Puccinian aria. Yet Bernstein said this while recording his score in 1984 for Deutsche Grammophon with often-miscast opera stars — in series of blunders that were mistaken for statements of intent. Nonetheless, the recording was a hit, prompting years of classical crossover projects that often lacked a solid point of view and had trouble finding an audience. Whenever West Side Story was made to fit in a prescribed categories over the years, its identity was diluted.

Amanda Castro was a spitfire Anita.

At every turn, though, the music has been the show’s primary selling point. Initially, the 1957 Broadway original didn’t really find an audience until the Columbia-label cast album was a hit, well beyond the usual Broadway circles. TV host Ed Sullivan introduced a song from the show with extravagant praise, but that was when the Broadway run was into its second year.

The music was indeed paramount in the Lyric Opera production staged by Francesca Zambello (also seen at Glimmerglass Opera), with the advantage of a full-sized orchestra, the likes of which is now seldom heard on Broadway. While the original pit band had musicians doing double and triple duty on multiple instruments, the Chicago group had just one musician per instrument to make sure everything was played equally well. But the music and still-pungent Stephen Sondheim lyrics drew extra impact from being strongly supported by theatrical elements that have been haphazard in other productions. In fact, the whole package was such a visceral experience that this update of Romeo and Juliet (called Tony and Maria here) — even with Arthur Laurents‘ 1950s daddy-o dialogue — became stunningly relevant to gun violence in 2023 America. I needed an hour afterwards to recover.

The stage-filling but not ostentatious set — jointly credited to Peter J. Davison and Jessica Jahn — conveys America’s underbelly, what’s behind the upbeat billboards and neon signs. The stage was often bathed in an eternal twilight, as if we were witnessing the decline of the American Dream. The Jerome Robbins choreography, reproduced by Joshua Bergasse, was crisp and communicative, not the kind of slavish, unmotivated re-creation that made you lose faith in the European production on YouTube from the opening moments. Dialogue scenes were gripping, and then when the music kicked in, the world of West Side Story became our world.

Kanisha Feliciano (Maria) projected a fierceness that captured the desperation of youth in eloquent contrast to her girlish silhouette.

The anatomy of that success lay in the Lyric Opera team giving the show the kind of attention and budget it deserves on its own hybrid terms. At a panel discussion before the performance, artistic administrator Cory Lippiello and conductor James Lowe described Lyric Opera’s annual musical theater forays not as an easy add-on to the opera season but as an entity unto itself harnessing the opera company’s full resources and drawing a different audience. (A man attempting to sell an extra ticket outside was wearing a cowboy hat and leopard print shirt — not exactly opera garb.) Accomplished but not necessarily star performers (amplified to fill the large venue) projected the theatrical vitality of Broadway without operatic grandeur or the kind of artificiality that asks audiences to excuse lack of theatrical credibility for the sake of great voices. Lippiello’s stated casting priorities are for performers who can do it all (sing, dance, act), and she was true to her word.

Good textual decisions were made. No overture — heard in the 1961 film and in at least one of the Broadway revivals — was to be heard, plunging the audience into this urban quagmire from moment one. The song “Somewhere” was sung by Maria — not the anonymous voice in the orchestra pit amid dream-ballet choreography, though this scene turned out to be one of the few with an unclear sense of purpose. No big deal. The inevitable weaknesses that come with musical theater — whatever they may be — mattered less because any missteps were overshadowed by the tragic sweep of the production.

Jeffrey Kringer, the understudy Tony, was everything you could want in the role. (Todd Estrin Photography)

Performances carried well in the large theater for being so truthfully inflected and thoughtfully framed. Jeffrey Kringer, the understudy Tony, was everything you could want in the role (looks, voice, acting chops) aided by staging for “Maria” and “Something Coming” that placed him alone, even isolated, underscoring the fact that his character is singing to himself. “Maria” became not just a love song but also the expression of a street punk realizing he has a soul. More than any Tony I’ve seen, he lived up to what other characters say about him prior to his first entrance. Neither of the movie-version Tonys (both weak links in their respective casts) are characters who would ever belong to a street gang like the Jets, much less lead them. This Tony had a playful, brash physicality of somebody who knew how to fight but had entered a new inner world through his star-crossed love for Maria.

Kringer’s manner of singing was among the best instances of current Broadway performance practice. In the 1940s and 50s, Broadway songs were often sung more simply, almost like musical reportage, perhaps letting the words and music speak for themselves. But like his more serious contemporaries (led by Audra McDonald), Kringer seems to have learned the songs first as dialogue, exploring meaning in every phrase, then applying the music, using smart vocal coloring of a trained opera singer without the operatic voice. His phrases were asymmetrical in length, essentially massaging the music to accommodate greater depth of content and projecting a level of emotional truth suggesting he was discovering the music for the first time and feeling the emotions in real time.

Jorge Guerra, the understudy for the Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo, was of a similar ilk but more of a make-do in the role, if only because he hadn’t the kind of imposing stature of someone fighting for a place in his adopted country.

The other cast members were first class, and distinctively so. Besides singing with a well-focused, unmannered, content-driven voice, Kanisha Feliciano (Maria) projected a fierceness that captured the desperation of youth in eloquent contrast to her girlish silhouette. And though I’d have liked more queen-bee charisma from Amanda Castro’s spitfire Anita, she too had the necessary fury to power the show’s life-and-death plot twists. Ensemble work among the Sharks and the Jets couldn’t have been better.

Maria (Kanisha Feliciano) mourns over the body of Tony at the end of ‘West Side Story.’

In the days since seeing the show, though, the deepest mark was left by the Bernstein score, which I’ve known since childhood. The sequencing is masterful, with each gang having its own comic song (“America” for the Sharks, “Gee, Officer Krupke” for the Jets) plus an emotional progression in the love songs, from discovery (“Tonight”) to commitment (“One Hand, One Heart”) to realistic resignation (“Somewhere”). The score is anything but a collection of great songs. It’s a network of dramatically apt thematic material that Bernstein constantly developed and integrated with so-called classical integrity but also with vernacular immediacy. Tough, fast, bebop jazz — heard more in spirit than in manner — adds spikes to the surface in the opening dance confrontation between the Jets and the Sharks. With the Beethoven quotations (“Cool” and “Somewhere”), West Side Story emerges as a score like no other, pop or classical, before or after. In his own time, Bernstein was thought to be in the conservative camp. But between his symphonies, his late-period Concerto for Orchestra, and especially West Side Story, Bernstein emerges as an alt-radical.