It was fifty years ago that “West Side Story” brought to full maturity the style of musical theater that had been pioneered by Rodgers & Hammerstein in the early 1940s with such works as “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel, ” a style that put as large an emphasis on dance as it did music, and insisted that musical numbers actually carry forth the action, not merely comment upon it. Choreographer Jerome Robbins had conceived of a contemporary updating of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that would play out on New York’s Lower West Side against a Catholic/Jewish backdrop as far back as the late 1940s, but it was composer Leonard Bernstein who made the change to Puerto Ricans versus the children of European immigrants, having wanted to incorporate the Latin rhythms and tri-tone harmonies of the bebop revolution a la Dizzy Gillespie with the slang language and speech patterns of the movement (“cool,” “Daddio”) used by the whites, and mambo rhythms and spicy Latin syncopations became trademarks of the Hispanics in an era when “world music” was a phrase only uttered by ethnomusicologists. The amazing thing about “West Side Story” is not only how swinging and fresh it remains musically, but with the current illegal immigration debate, it may well be more socially relevant today than when it was premiered. After presenting six straight years of Stephen Sondheim works, Ravinia turns to his role as lyricist in “West Side Story” with a fully staged production for one night only that has original cast members Carole Lawrence (“Maria”) and Chita Rivera (“Anita”) coaching the cast with Jerome Robbins’ assistant Gerald Freedman choreographing and Bernstein assistant John Mauceri conducting. Lawrence, Freedman and Mauceri will participate in a pre-show discussion one hour before the show. Because pavilion seats sold out so quickly, tickets to the preceding evening’s working dress rehearsal are also being sold. (Dennis Polkow)
Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook at Green Bay, Highland Park, (847)266-5100. Thu-Fri 8pm.