Forbidden love in Lyric's West Side Story

  • Lyric Opera's new grand-scale coproduction of West Side Story successfully opened on May 3 and will run until June 2. Todd Rosenberg

    Lyric Opera's new grand-scale coproduction of West Side Story successfully opened on May 3 and will run until June 2. Todd Rosenberg

Natalia Dagenhart
Updated 5/15/2019 10:34 AM

Whoever thinks that love is just pure pleasure, with no obstacles and pain in its way, is wrong. Love can bring devastation, struggle and even tragedy, especially if it is forbidden love, as happens in West Side Story. This musical demonstrates the love between Tony and Maria who are related to two opposing gangs in New York and who shouldn't have allowed themselves fall in love with each other. However, love is born in the human heart, not in the brain, and therefore it easily gets out of control. Lyric Opera's new grand-scale coproduction of West Side Story successfully opened on May 3 and will run until June 2.

West Side Story is a Lyric premiere and a new coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and Glimmerglass Festival and is based on the original conception of Jerome Robbins. It is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International, which supplied this coproduction with all performance materials. Based on a book written by famous American playwright, stage director and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, with gorgeous music composed by iconic American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein, and with touching lyrics by American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, this musical is a true masterpiece that was greatly anticipated by Chicago audiences.


"It was hugely gratifying to all of us at Lyric to witness the reaction of our audiences when it was announced that we would be producing West Side Story this season," wrote Lyric's General Director, President and CEO Anthony Freud and Lyric's Chairman David T. Ormesher in Lyric's Notes. "From emails, letters, phone calls, and subsequently the conversations we've had with patrons throughout the season, we've felt tremendous excitement. It's been clear from the start that this show has created a special connection with people everywhere. In so many cases, that connection has been lifelong; whether seeing the show onstage or on film, it remains unforgettable."

The entire original production was directed and choreographed by popular American choreographer, director and theater producer Jerome Robbins. In the new coproduction, the original choreography is recreated by Julio Monge. Staged by internationally acclaimed opera and theater director Francesca Zambello, the production features members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by a leading conductor of Opera and Musical Theater, Grammy nominated musician James Lowe. Set designs are by Peter J. Davison, with costumes designed by Jessica Jahn and lighting designed by Mark McCullough. Mark Grey is sound designer and Michael Black is chorus master.

This iconic, Tony-winning musical was originally produced on Broadway by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince by arrangement with Roger L. Stevens. It was first performed at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York on September 26, 1957. All the characteristics of the Broadway musical -- unforgettable melodies, electrifying dances and an intriguing plot -- are there; but what makes this particular musical unique? The answer is -- the story that it tells.

Many critics and audience members find similarities between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. The main difference is that this musical "transplants Romeo and Juliet to the backstreets of New York, creating a timeless masterpiece that comes to life with nearly one hundred artists on Chicago's biggest stage." The story of two young people who belong to rival households/tribes/gangs is immortal as it has occurred from the beginning of times and seems like it will keep reoccurring in the future. Rivalry, danger and romance, which the lovers have to keep in secret, seem only to boil their feelings up to an unbelievable degree, but does it lead to happiness and end in a successful marriage? Usually not; it leads to unimaginable problems and even tragic deaths.

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West Side Story tells about two warring New York City gangs -- the Jets led by Riff and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo. The gangs fight for territory and can't coexist with each other. At a dance, a former Jet, Tony, meets Bernardo's younger sister, Maria, and they immediately fall in love with each other. Nothing can stop their feelings and they begin to meet in secret dreaming about running away and staying together forever. When the Sharks and the Jets plan a rumble under the highway, Maria sends Tony to stop it hoping he can end the violence. In the midst of the fight, Bernardo kills Riff. Enraged at the murder of his best friend, Tony picks up Riff's blade and stabs Bernardo, killing him instantly. At the end Chino, who is another Shark, shoots Tony. Tony dies in Maria's arms. Maria takes Chino's gun and blames everyone for these three deaths. However, this tragedy leads to the end of the long lasting feud between the gangs.

The role of Tony is performed by young and extremely talented American actor and singer Corey Cott, who is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Cott received critical acclaim on Broadway for his performance in the Tony Award-winning musical Bandstand. Besides being a familiar face on Broadway, Cott appears at many other prestigious venues, including Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, and on television. His bright performance and touching sincere voice have already impressed Chicago audiences. Cott found the best way to present Tony's passionate and gentle feelings towards Maria and his deep, yet tragic, love to her.

Celebrated young singer and actress Mikaela Bennett performs the role of Maria in West Side Story. Bennett is a graduate of the Juilliard School with a list of accomplishments on various prestigious stages and in concert halls. Last year, Bennett portrayed Maria for the BBC Proms in London. In 2019, she was honored with a Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists. She has also appeared as a soloist at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. Her sincere and strong voice and extremely feminine presentation of Maria has already impressed Chicago audiences. Bennett masterfully demonstrates Maria's love to Tony, her passion, fear, romantic excitement, and finally her tragic loss.

Another principal role, the role of Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, is performed by talented dancer and actress Amanda Castro. The energy and the brilliance of this performer impress the audience members from the first minutes of her appearance on stage. Castro has previously appeared in West Side Story as both Anita (Atlanta Opera, Glimmerglass Festival) and Consuelo (Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Houston Grand Opera). Being a California Institute of the Arts alumna, Castro is known as an accomplished principal dancer, choreographer, and also as a model and movement specialist. Her talent shines across the United States, in Europe and South Africa.


The role of Riff is presented by acclaimed actor and dancer Brett Thiele, who has appeared in multiple Broadway productions including Escape to Margaritaville, Miss Saigon, and Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. His memorable presentation of the Jet's leader, Riff, is just another great role in his amazing theatrical collection. His previous West Side Story performances include Riff with the St. Petersburg Opera Company and Action at the Asolo Theatre in Florida.

The role of muscular and passionate Bernardo is performed by talented American actor and dancer Manuel Stark Santos. He previously played this role at Ogunquit Playhouse. Besides that, he has also portrayed Chino at New York's Palace Theatre and Riff at Carnegie Hall. Multiple appearances on Broadway and at other famous venues and on television prove his unbeatable talent and charisma.

Electrifying dances, tremendous singing and unforgettable acting -- this is Lyric's West Side Story. Come to Lyric Opera to admire a great cast of nearly one hundred talented artists and musicians, sing along with iconic songs such as "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Maria" and many more, and enjoy Lyric's West Side Story. This coproduction puts this musical on a new level while telling a touching story of modern Romeo and Juliet whose love overcomes difficulties and death and lives in people's hearts forever.

For tickets and information, please go to or call 312-827-5600. Tickets are on sale now starting at $26. Performances run through June 2, 2019 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive in Chicago.

Natalia Dagenhart

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