Photo: Gabrielle McClinton and the Shark Girls | Elise Bakketun
By Bec Pennington
“Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico’s in America!”
The words are sung brightly, lightheartedly, just a little hurried. WEST SIDE STORY hasn’t aged enough in sixty-one years. Despite the limitations of the era in which it was written, it somehow sits in a timeless bubble of music, romance, and relevancy.
When the modern Romeo & Juliet was first being written by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, the globe was only just reeling from the devastation of World War II. Homegrown ideas about superiority and race, exported to Europe, had been brought to horrific fruition in the hands of a madman and his followers. Back home, sentiment against Jews had led Congress to pass legislation turning away at the ports those who were trying to escape the Holocaust, but Robbins’ “Juliet” was supposed to have made it through. Her “Romeo” was to come from Irish Catholic stock, a group which clashed with their new Jewish neighbors on the east side of New York, despite the fact that they had known their own troubles with discrimination upon immigrating. It was a fascinating premise, but had actually already been addressed in other works, so the idea was tabled until worsening gang wars of the next decade brought it back to mind.
Before the end of the first World War, the United States granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, bestowing the benefit of freedom of movement between the island and the mainland during the tumultuous years that followed, with its series of natural disasters, political upheaval, and economic downturn. Though Puerto Ricans were not immigrants, the response to their arrival in New York in the 40’s and 50’s was often the typical unwelcoming reception heaped on the “poor huddled masses,” a reflection of our long-term struggle with being a melting pot. Robbins, Bernstein, and Laurents, this time along with the incredible Stephen Sondheim, felt that it was time to speak up.
Of course, WEST SIDE STORY is not without its flaws. The police officers are depicted as two-dimensionally racist and differentiation of the two cultures dips into stereotyping here and there. The Romeo and Juliet romance narrative is even more rushed than its Shakespearean inspiration; instantaneous love that withstands the test of death and betrayal within a 48-hour span requires the suspension of disbelief. But the audience has proven time and again that we’re here for it. There’s just something unifying, so very human. It is a story of great tragedy, with hope conveyed on every face at the closing of the curtain. We are asked to look beyond the flaws and find a reason to rise above, and we want to do so. That is the enduring power – that as much as we can hate, we can love.
Jerome Robbins approached ballet with a unique earthiness that, when forming the foundation of a musical, revolutionized both the theatrical and dance worlds. In The Lyric Opera’s offering, his undeniably brilliant choreography is unfortunately only adequately performed, without the punch, strike, and polish of the original intent, though Julio Monge has staged the movement well. But what the actors may lack in dance technique is fully made up for in vocal skill, with Vanessa Becerra’s sweet Maria and Andrew Bidlack’s Tony, a lilting tenor, leading the way. The pace of this production is not always patient and Lyric could benefit from drawing out some key moments and letting us breathe. Still, more than its shortcomings are its triumphs. In this company’s presentation, the irony of whitewashed casting that has plagued the show over the years is thankfully shunned. The entire cast is high energy, Gabrielle McClinton’s sassy Anita is a solid standout, Becerra and Bidlack exude beautiful chemistry. Expansive set pieces unfold under glowing layers of sunset tones and street lights — thoughtful details complete each scene. Costumes are decidedly current to our time, driving home that this story is for us, for now.
There are good reasons to love this city. It’s become well known in recent years that visiting downtown on a weekend is a reliably pleasant experience. Going to the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts can be a challenge sometimes now that our growing metro’s secret is out, and Saturday night performances in both major halls stuff the center’s garage to maximum. Alternative parking means a couple of unbelievably friendly rides on the streetcar featuring typically midwestern banter with fellow passengers about the show they just attended and the amazing views at sunset. An impeccably dressed gentleman waiting with us for the car delights to opine on men’s fashion and his favorite icon, Carey Grant. In the moment, with the camaraderie of strangers from many walks, the dangers of “othering” seem perhaps possible to overcome. It’s certainly worth a try.