Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
West Side Story
Based on choreographer Jerome Robbins' conception, the conflict between mainland Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks takes on added significance in the shadow of the nation's current travails. At the performance caught, Libonati's pre-curtain speech emphasized its relevance to the killings in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas. Derogatory names carelessly tossed about in West Side Story find echoes in a land divided by hateful tribalism and demagogic politicians.
The work, dating from 1957, ostensibly concerns itself with feuds between rival New York gangs. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the evening starts and ends with heart-tearing explosiveness, leavened by thwarted love stories. With time, the musical drama has been recognized not only as a work of art but a metaphor for class and racial clashes.
In New Canaan, although some of the dialogue scenes are tentative, the musical numbers come across with searing intensity. Later performances should acquire more assuredness but, even now, the cast sings and dances with fiery abandon.
The opening mini-ballet is prologue to murderous terrors to come. Cavorting Jets move to melodic strains that become menacing as the Sharks claim territory. Soon, a touch becomes a shove, a fist becomes a knife, someone's ear is cut and limbs fly. A rumble is promised at a school dance but something unexpected happens: Tony, once a Jet leader, falls instantly in love with Maria, a girl from the Shark side of the tracks. Their reach across the divide is woven into the fabric of the larger battle between the gangs.
There are moments when cooler heads might prevail. At the dance, when Tony and Maria meet, other couples exchange the harsh mambo for the soothing minuet. When, in act two, Tony and Maria are caught in the web of violence, they dream of a better life "Somewhere," as males and females from both sides, costumed by Lauren Gaston in diaphanous pastels, reconcile in a luminous fantasy ballet.
But Doug Shankman's choreography, though skilled, here falls short. The "Somewhere" ballet is more pretty pictures than signifier of dreams deferred. Further, the intrusion of the resurrected Riff and Bernardo, killed at the end of act one and now returned to inject reality into fantasy, is hidden upstage and loses impact.
Elsewhere, there's a similar lack of focus. "Cool" is less an attempt at controlling volcanic emotions than a hodgepodge of steps. Further, the climactic deathsRiff's and Bernardo's, then Tony'shappen on a lower platform level and are virtually unseen by many in the audience.
Compensations abound: a plangent "Tonight" quintet, a hilarious "Gee, Officer Krupke," an exuberant "I Feel Pretty," a powerful "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love." The orchestra under music director David Hancock Turner gets all the brassy and percussive nuances out of Bernstein's brilliant score. Still, it's Robbins' powerful concept that makes West Side Story the major work of art it has become.
Both Zach Schanne (Tony) and Julia Paladino (Maria) have gorgeous voices. Their acting improves as the show goes along until, in the second half, they become a moving duo. Hector Flores Jr.'s Bernardo is commanding, while Naysh Fox's clean-cut Riff is equally strong. Mike Boland as Shrank, David Johnson as Krupke, and Marc Geller as the empathetic Doc do well in roles meant to show adult perplexities.
Except for Bernardo and Chino (an excellent John Paul LaPorte), the Sharks are less individualized than the Jets. The latter are idiosyncratically portrayed by Jonny Wexler, Bryan Dougherty, Donovan Mendelovitz, and Nicholas Cocchetto, with Ella Raymont as the lively camp follower, Anybodys.
As good as everyone is, it's Kristen Stewart who provides the most fireworks. Her Anita peppers toughness with generosity and love. Dancing with spirit, singing with dramatic inflections, Stewart brings out the character's remarkable ability to be ironic and serious at once, nowhere more than in the drugstore rape scene where her humiliation swiftly turns to vitriol. She anchors a show that would seem to be dated yet isn't. Unfortunately.
West Side Story is at Summer Theatre of New Canaan, Waveny Park, New Canaan, through July 31, 2016. Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Tickets are $45-$300 and may be purchased online at www.stonc.org or by phone at 203-966-4634.
Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins Book by Arthur Laurents Music by Leonard Bernstein Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Music direction: David Hancock Turner Choreography: Doug Shankman Scenic Design: Charles Pavarini III Costume Design: Lauren Gaston Lighting Design: Daniel B. Chapman Sound Design: Ian Loftis Production Stage Manager: Maria Gray Director: Melody Meitrott Libonati
Zach Schanne, Julia Paladino, Kristen Stewart, Hector Flores, Jr., Naysh Fox, Mike Boland, David Johnson, Marc Geller, Matthew Johnson, Jonny Wexler, Bryan Dougherty, Donovan Mendelovitz, Nicholas Cocchetto, Ella Raymont, John Paul LaPorte, Joey Lucherini, Michael J. Baugh, Michael Damian Fasano, Jessica Lawyer, Kelly Loughran, Rachel MacIsaac, Nikki Croker, Nicole Colon, Samantha Sayah, Katrina Asmar, Kelsey Morales, Bennett Leeds, Savannah Lobel, José Plaza, Jessica Freedman, Dylan Thomas Kastel