The Lyric Opera of Kansas City launched its season with West Side Story, a co-production of Houston Grand Opera, Glimmerglass Festival and Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Company has forayed into musical theatre from early on in its 61-year history; indeed in 1971, it garnered a cover of Life magazine with its production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Vanessa Becerra (Maria) and Andrew Bidlack (Tony) © Elise Bakketun
Vanessa Becerra (Maria) and Andrew Bidlack (Tony)
© Elise Bakketun

The commitment to crossing boundaries between Broadway and opera seems to be an increasingly notable feature of productions in the US – both in terms of singers themselves, and also themes and styles. This comes with excitements and possibilities of their own – not least in terms of audience appeal – and the ways in which it invites us to break down some overly-artificial divides. The iconic 1957 West Side Story – a turf war between New Yorker Montagues and Capulets in which true love is fatally mixed – with its pulsing score by Leonard Berstein presents an ideal opportunity for an operatic makeover in the hands of director Francesca Zambello.

Based in the nation’s capital, Zambello is one of American opera’s most political animals, and points to the moral the work bears for the polarized tribalism of today. Indeed, Zambello refuses to make things quaintly antiquated. We are looking at recognizable city dilapidation and minority poverty: the graffiti, the urban dance forms, the 1990s grunge-style costumes of the gangs – this is today, this is now, don’t kid yourself that this is past. Gender also pulses through the production; beside the Guadeloupe icon in Maria’s room is a picture of Sonia Sotamayor swearing in, the first justice of Hispanic (indeed Puerto Rican) descent. But contrasting realities are juxtaposed. In the scene where Anita (performed with Broadway edge and raw pizzazz by Gabriella McClinton), is ‘shadow-raped’ by the Jets, the repetition of the music (her music originally, expressing the seductions of the American dream) “I like to be in America” seemed savagely ironic, and indeed painfully relevant given recent furores in sexual politics and the status of minority women.

Vanessa Becerra (Maria), Andrew Bidlack (Tony) and the “Dream” ballet © Elise Bakketun
Vanessa Becerra (Maria), Andrew Bidlack (Tony) and the “Dream” ballet
© Elise Bakketun

Andrew Bidlack was elegantly operatic in the higher registers as Tony, if somewhat thin on the lower end. There is a Broadway-style ‘belting it’ and an entirely different operatic way of going at ‘full throttle’, and I’m not sure he got either. Vanessa Becerra was a bubbly sweet-voiced Maria, giving a teeny-bopper vibrated energy to her “I Feel Pretty”. Her emotional range favoured smiling happiness; she was less convincing as the shocked and bereaved sister (mind you, the script only gives her an un-Shakespearean minute to reconcile with the fact of still loving her brother’s killer. American optimism?). Her own transformation of rage, at the end, where she almost becomes a killer, felt damp somewhat and instead of dropping the gun (in power of choice or hopelessness), it was merely taken from her by the police, and she appeared neither triumphant over violence nor a victim of despair, merely passive.

Brian Vu swaggered through his role as Riff; his first aria took some settling in, but later, his “Cool” was rhythmically punchy; indeed the choreography of this entire scene in the diner, with the ominous snapping of fingers, and that angular music (throughout conducted with much flair by David Charles Abell), was excellent.

The Sharks © Elise Bakketun
The Sharks
© Elise Bakketun

For other highlights, one could cite the juxtaposition of voices and themes in “Tonight” – some baying for a rumble, Anita’s for sensuality, Tony and Maria’s for ecstasy – and the swift contrast with what that night actually brings – two dead bodies, and an eerie silence, broken only by tolling bells, a faraway siren and curtain fall. “Gee, Officer Krupke”, after a start that felt a little uncertain, became a fabulously nasty and raucous charivari, as the Jets under Connor McRory’s Action, inverted and subverted scarecrow authority.

One feature that this production brought out convincingly was the identity between dance and violence – both ritualized form of tribal expression – both forms in which the players find creativity, and sometimes enjoyment. Praise to Julio Monge for his overall choreography; the only place I found dance distracting was in the duet “Somewhere”, where Tony and Maria sang their ideal, accompanied by six balletic dancers. We had few enough chances to indulge in long duets in this pacy musical; we could have done with concentration on pure voice here. I suppose that’s one thing that pure opera allows you to do in full, indulge in sonic beauty, whereas in musical theatre you always seem to be whipped from one thing to another. Not that this is a bad thing, it is just the way it is. But I can’t think that any opera composers worth their salt would have skipped over the possibilities for indulgence inherent in the impropriety of being bedded by your brother’s killer.

***11