A “West Side Story” to Remember

By Brooks Appelbaum

“It may come cannonballing down through the sky/Gleam in its eye/Bright as a rose!” sings Tony (Zack Schanne), early on in “West Side Story.” He might as well be describing Summer Theater of New Canaan’s magnificent production, running through July 31 in Waveny Park. “West Side Story” is, famously, one of the most difficult musicals of its era -- the late 1950’s -- but this version gets every detail absolutely right, from the furious energy, to the lovers’ chemistry and tenderness, to the pulsing choreography, to the glorious singing. Without a gimmick in sight, this production feels as fresh as if you are coming to the show for the first time. And if you are, you are more than fortunate.

Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, and featuring a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” transposes Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to an ethnic, blue collar neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side. Two gangs, the Polish-born Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, square off as immigrant enemies. Their fight for turf -- literal and figurative -- is painfully relevant today, as we see the Lt. Shrank (a chilling Mike Boland) instruct the Jets to clean up the neighborhood and get rid of the Puerto Ricans for him.

In a scene echoing Shakespeare’s plot, Puerto Rican Maria (beautifully played by Julia Paladino) meets former Jet Tony at a dance, and they fall instantly in love. Thus the tragedy begins its inevitable course, overseen by adults who are either, like Lt. Shrank, hatefully prejudiced, or like Officer Krupke (David Johnson) completely ineffectual, or like the good-hearted, peace-keeping Doc (Marc Geller), unable to talk sense into the warring kids.

The musical demands remarkable technical prowess from its director, stars, and ensemble. Director Melody Meitrott Libonoti has cast the show with a perfect eye and ear, while Choreographer Doug Shankman, along with Music Director David Hancock Turner and his terrific orchestra, help to create the show’s remarkable energy, so crucial to any “West Side Story.”

From the first big number, “Jet Song,” featuring a terrific Naysh Fox as the gang’s charismatic leader, to Tony’s hopeful, delicate ballad, “Something’s Coming,” it’s clear that the production will hit every emotional and musical note. Through acting, singing and dancing, Paladino beautifully portrays Maria’s journey through girlish innocence, awakening romantic passion, and finally the furious rage of a woman. Zack Schanne is in every way her equal: a delicate, tender Tony who creates, for his Maria, a magical world where hatred has no place, until hatred proves stronger than he.

Katie Stewart plays Anita, Maria’s soon-to-be sister-in-law and best friend, as sharply intelligent and sensually fearless. Hector Flores, Jr., as Bernardo (Maria’s protective brother), is terrifying in his hatred of the Jets but poignant, too, as the leader of the most recent immigrants, who know full well that they are the pariahs of the West Side.

Every single member of the ensemble sparkles, and those in featured roles amaze. As Action, Johnny Wexler not only exudes frightening power and energy, but he can do back flips, walk on his hands, and, in the terrific number “Gee Officer Krupke,” he nearly steals the scene amidst a group of fabulous Jets.

Rosalia, as played by Nicole Colon, brings innocent homesickness to “America,” while Stewart’s Anita, along with the other Puerto Rican girls deliver their zingers with pizzazz. Ella Raymont, as Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a boy and a Jet, brings just the right toughness and poignancy to her role.

As with any great production of either “Romeo and Juliet” or “West Side Story,” we always hope and hope that the story will end differently. However, its ending is not only inevitable, but -- as with all true tragedies -- cathartic. Kudos, then, to Libonati and her cast, for playing the ending just as it should be played, with no softening. Even the company bow is restrained and in keeping with all that has just gone before. At the production I saw, Paladino’s eyes were still glistening with Maria’s tears as she acknowledged the audience’s ovation. For this critic, the tears had begun long before.

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