Book: Arthur Laurents; Music: Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org; $29-$219. Runs through: June 2
West Side Story shares a problem with other hit musicals like Hair ( 1967 ), A Chorus Line ( 1975 ) and Rent ( 1996 ). All were cutting-edge contemporary when they debuted, but the march of time has inevitably turned them into period pieces.
This could be why director Francesca Zambello opted not to entirely fall back on the traditional 1957 setting of West Side Story, which is now making a grand and beautifully sung debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Now traditionalists will be pleased that Jerome Robbins' original iconic West Side Story choreography has been meticulously recreated by Julio Monge ( although the "Nightmare" portion of the "Somewhere" dream ballet has been lopped off ).
And the basic Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story still shines through thanks to gorgeously acted and sung performances all around. Mikaela Bennett as Maria and Corey Cott as Tony lean more on pop vocal technique to sound like contemporary teenagers instead of sounding overly operatic ( like in composer Leonard Bernstein's own overblown 1985 studio recording ).
And though there were some early brass flubs during the opening prologue, the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by James Lowe brought a lush sweep to Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's jazzy and Latin-inflected score.
But in other ways, Zambello's West Side Story staging is an odd and disquieting jumble. It's as if the director and her design team were updating certain elements to make the musical a reflective dialogue with the country's past and present.
The street slang dreamed up by book writer Arthur Laurents often sounds quaint coming out the mouths of rival Jets and Sharks gang membersespecially since they've been garbed ( and heavily tattooed ) by costume designer Jessica Jahn and makeup designer Sarah Hatten to look like gutter punks you'd encounter on the streets.
Other tiny details can jar, too. After hearing so many white characters disparage Manhattan's newly arrived Puerto Rican community, it's hard to ignore a magazine cutout of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor decorating Maria's bedroom ( which is ingeniously revealed in Peter J. Davidson's hulking urban set ).
I'm guessing that Zambello and company don't want contemporary West Side Story audiences to settle into the safety of watching a period piece. With so many contemporary visuals laid on top of the musical's 1950s framework, it's tough to think, "Thank God we've progressed beyond those outdated attitudes."
So approach the Lyric's grand staging of West Side Story in the same way you might with an updated Shakespearean production. The historical details may nag a bit, but the universality and raw emotions all ring true.