West Side Story may have never truly left the American zeitgeist — just start humming “Maria,” or start snapping your fingers in time and people will know what you’re on about. But just wait, buddy boy, because it’s poised to make a big comeback in 2020, with both the Steven Spielberg-directed, Tony Kushner-adapted, film version, just about overlapping with a planned revival helmed by Broadway’s new go-to minimalist Ivo van Hove.
But rather than wait around for those, why not hie thee hither to the Civic, where the Lyric Opera continues its Broadway musical series with a traditional maximalist Story that does what Story should do: not satisfy, really, but it soothes and inspires just as easily as it needles and perhaps even sickens.
You know the spiel: trade Romeo and Juliet for Tony and Maria; trade fair Verona for a few slummy blocks of Manhattan; trade the lording Montague and Capulet for the street-rat Jets and Sharks. A long-held grudge smolders until it explodes— from bare knuckles to pocket knives to a gun — with the young lovers caught in the middle of a conflagration out of all control.
Director Francesca Zambello wisely leaves Story to do its thing. She knows she doesn’t have to graft on anything extra to make the material any more electrifying than it already is — Leonard Bernstein’s sexy symphonic score damn well takes care of that, as does Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography (recreated by Julio Monge).
Nor does she have to push to be discomfiting. Even 60 years after its premiere, bringing the Act One curtain down on absolute silence, two youths dead in a back alley, feels revolutionary, an unwelcome turn for the ticket buyer who thought a musical meant not having to think on the world tearing itself apart outside. Her one big touch is an omission: Traditionally, as in the Shakespeare, the two gangs tacitly end their feud by the end. At the Lyric, something goes unspoken, but it isn’t a reconciliation.
It’s an opera house, though, so nothing goes unspoken or unsung for long. Broadway vets Corey Cott and Mikaela Bennett make especially sweet music together as Tony and Maria — absolutely earnest and committed performances, both. Bennett — who has done Maria before in concert with the BBC, and for whom this performance should do wonders for her profile — also exudes a winsomeness that makes Amanda Castro’s far more down-to-earth Anita such an excellent foil.
It’s also a handsome production all around, as the standard of the Lyric’s Broadway series goes. Especially the scenery: much like Zambello, Peter G. Davison gives us the great big Story we expect, full of fire escapes and chain link fences. His curtain, though, is striking and not a little uncomfortable to keep looking at during intermission: two hands clasped…in an apparent bid for mutually assured destruction.
Decades after his green days on West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim would write Into the Woods, another musical that asked who, exactly, was minding the children and what they learn about the world. Decades after even Woods, we’re still asking that question. And if West Side Story can once again be front-and-center in that discussion, “Somewhere” might just inch its way closer, who knows?
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents West Side Story through June 2 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.