West Side Story first appeared in Chicago when the national touring company opened on October 8, 1959 at the Erlanger Theater (1912), on Clark Street at  the site of the current Chriskindlmart plaza.

The legendary Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy loved The musical but not the performance of it.

“It takes the big musicals so long to get to Chicago that they often seem like revivals, and the loss of initial impact plus the growing legend of their prowess means they have to get steadily better to survive. West Side Story is a brilliant musical – at its best it has a vitality and validity to set an audience cheering, or to keep it in almost lethal silence, which is a bigger tribute. But it needs superlative performance. At the Erlanger Tuesday night it got something less than that.”[i]

Larry Kert’s Tony and Leila Martin’s Maria were fine. But she regretted that the dancing had “lost the old beauty of style.”

As long ago as 1956 Leonard Bernstein identified the problem which would coexist with every production of West Side Story:

       Chief problem: to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and ‘just dancing,’ abstract and representational. Avoid being ‘message’. The line is there, but it’s very fine, and sometimes takes a lot of peering around to discern it.”[ii]

Bernstein would have applauded  director Francesco Zambello for doing just that in this year’s West Side Story at the Lyric Opera House.

From the dynamic conducting of James Lowe through the historic electrifying Robbins’ dancing recreated by  choreographer Joshua Bergasse to the moodily evocative settings of Peter J. Davison, brought to life by the dramatic lighting of Mark McCullough. Jessica Johns’ period costumes were icing on the tastiest cake to arrive in town in years.

The big story of the production could have been taken right out of 42nd Street, as understudy Jeffrey Kringer mesmerized the house with his revelatory subtext of the role of Tony. As he sang “Something’s Coming” and then  “Tonight” the music resonated as if never heard before. The wide-eyed innocence of Kringer’s interpretation moved the audience to demand an encore. (Which the conductor did not allow.)

Bernstein’s music never sounded better than in the hands of not only Kringer, but also with the Maria of Kanisha Feliciano, and the Anita of Amanda Castro. Ms.  Feliciano had everything Bernstein demands of of a Maria – charm to spare, and a mastery of acting, singing and dancing. Ms. Castro had all of those qualities, plus   great comic timing and a knack for energing the stage whenever she was on it. “Electrifying” would not be too strong a word to describe her performance.

The performance harkened back to the most famous such incident happening to a beloved Chicago opera singer – Mary Garden (1874-1976) On 10 April 1900 in the title role of Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, which had received its world premiere only two months before at Paris’ Opera Comique, young vocal student Mary was called out of the audience, at the eighth performance of the work to replace Marthe Rioton who had become ill She never looked back as she quickly became an international opera diva.

Mr. Kringer had the audience in the palm of his hand from beginning to end, as the rest of the cast rallied around him to give a most memorable performance.

Lyric Opera’s  magnificent West Side Story should end once and for all the argument as to whether great American “musicals” should be part of an operatic season.

West Side Story stands with Porgy and Bess as part of the world musical theater’s operatic canon.

[i] Claudia Cassidy, “On the Aisle: West Side “Romeo and Juliet” Lyric Drama of Young Hoodlum Gangs” Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1959, page B 15.

[ii] Excerpts from a West Side Story Log by Leonard Bernstein’ in Readings on West Side Story, edby zMary E. Williams, San Diego, CA, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 44.

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