In a month when New York City has often looked like a sepia-toned photograph thanks to smoke from Canadian wildfires, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has revived a shadowy slice of 1950s Manhattan in a thrilling production of West Side Story driven by the reckless passion of teenagers desperate to make their mark on an unforgiving world even as they struggle to figure out who they are and where their true loyalties lie.

The key to the production’s success is that Ryan McCartan’s Tony and Kanisha Feliciano’s Maria play as real teens with messy emotions, big dreams and poor impulse control. They infuse believability into what could otherwise be an overly melodramatic update on Romeo and Juliet. And McCartan pulls off the rare feat of making Tony the beating heart of the story, essaying his love and ultimate torment with knockout singing that deservedly elicited the biggest applause on opening night.

With the leads locked in, every other element of the production swings into place to deliver a transporting evening at the theatre. From the larger-than-life sets to the orchestra that handles the joy and pathos of the score with equal aplomb, this is a memorable West Side Story that reminds you how moving a big musical production can be.

The songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and the soaring Jerome Robbins choreography deliver a feast of visual and auditory delights. This is a show with so many numbers woven into popular culture that it’s easy to go from one to the next thinking, oh, right–that one’s in here, too. “Maria,” “Tonight” and “America” swoop in back-to-back-to-back, anchoring Act One, with “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere” yet to come.

The entire ensemble of Sharks and Jets is up to the challenge. Keith Kupferer (Lt. Schrank) and Genevieve VenJohnson (Doc) deserve a tip of Officer Krupke’s cap for providing a needed dose of adult sorrow over the squandered potential of these promising children who, adrift and neglected when they should be nurtured and supported, end up losing everything in the most dangerous of games. Sepia-toned or not, some things never change.

West Side Story runs through June 25 at the Lyric Opera House.

For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg