Few would argue that “West Side Story” is the pinnacle of that genre known as musical theater. Composer Leonard Bernstein wanted it to be the great American opera but felt he had failed because the most dramatic moment of the piece—Maria’s speech with the gun after Tony is killed—could not be set to music despite his trying to set it as an aria. When Bernstein himself decided to record the work in 1985, he used opera singers. When Lyric Opera first produced “West Side Story” as its spring musical in 2019, it took more of a Broadway approach. For this 2023 revival, its operatic elements are much more effectively addressed.
Director Francesca Zambello has returned and has rethought her conception of the piece, tinkering with it in subsequent productions for the better. The original Jerome Robbins choreography feels more poetic and character-driven this time around, reproduced by Joshua Bergasse. The transitions from music and dance to spoken word are less jarring and the acting feels more organic overall. And the singing is vastly improved.
This is the “West Side Story” as it was conceived in 1957, which is to say the original song order is preserved and its radical elements are left to pack a wallop. When the curtain comes down on the bodies of two lead characters at the end of Act I, we are shocked. No less so for the finale, which Zambello effectively lets speak for itself more than we are used to seeing.
Taking a nod from Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of the 1961 film adaptation, Doc (Genevieve VenJohnson) is a woman in this production. Taking a nod from book writer Arthur Laurents later redoing some scenes in Spanish, the wedding vows are repeated in Spanish. Robert Wise, who directed the original 1961 film version, is saluted with the way time cinematically stops around the first meeting of the star-crossed lovers.
But the real strength of this production lies in its two leads, making their Lyric debuts. They are fresh, young and have extraordinary chemistry. Not only do we buy that these are two individuals looking for much more out of life when we meet them, we soar with them as they fall in love. That is so crucial to making every other element of this show have meaning. Oh, and each can sing. So much so that Maria, played by Kanisha Feliciano, also sings “Somewhere,” which is not even Maria’s song, but breaks our hearts when she does. Tony, played by Ryan McCartan, creates an immense air of excitement with “Something’s Coming” and such euphoria with “Maria” that he actually stopped the show. Both are trained voices who never over-sing and can hold high notes as part of a melodic line while focusing on the emotion of their characters. Their iconic duets of “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” will melt your heart.
The full orchestra, conducted by James Lowe, is tender when it needs to be, but funky and bold when called to be.
A “West Side Story” with every element so flawlessly executed is a rarity and as good as it gets.
“West Side Story” at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker (at Madison), lyricopera.org. Through June 25.