The Show to Go To
By Geary Danihy
Recently there have been informal discussions amongst members of the Connecticut Critics Circle about viewing -- and reviewing -- plays and musicals that have been seen many times before. One typical response has been: “Oh, not another production of (fill in the blank).” Yes, one has to labor against becoming jaded, and an antidote to the “Been there, done that” syndrome can be found in New Canaan at Waveny Park, where Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “West Side Story” is running through July 31. From the first haunting whistle that calls the Jets together, this production sweeps you up and makes you forget you know the story, you know the score -- you are once again a kid in a candy store reveling in all the delights being offered. Director Melody Meitrott Libonati and choreographer Doug Shankman have created a magical evening of musical theater that you simply don’t want to miss.
When it first opened on Broadway in 1957 (yes, almost 60 years ago) it received mixed critical response, but the musical, based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, quickly captured the public’s imagination and became one of the most beloved musicals. Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the story focuses on two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fighting for turf rights on the West Side of Manhattan (an area that would soon be leveled to make way for Lincoln Center). Against all odds, two “star-crossed lovers,” Maria (Julia Paladino) and Tony (Zach Schane) attempt to defy racial boundaries, believing that there is a place, “somewhere,” where their love for each other can flourish.
Under the protective tent at Waveny their tragic story unfolds, and it is just about everything you could ask for. Yes, the music and songs are familiar, but the energy and intensity generated by this fine cast makes you believe that this is the first time this story has been told, the first time these numbers have been performed.
Paladino is superb as the young girl on the brink of womanhood, flush with hopes and dreams, giddy with the dawning awareness that she is “so pretty.” Playing against her unbridled vibrancy, Schanne creates a Tony torn by loyalties and desires. I defy you not to wipe a tear or two away from your eyes while watching their “balcony” scene.
There’s just so much energy up there on the stage that you often wonder if the tent’s fabric isn’t pulsating. The “Dance at the Gym” sequence, when Tony and Maria first meet, is sheer magic, enhanced by some nice lighting effects compliments of Daniel B. Chapman, and the “America” number is sharp, intense and witty, enhanced by Katie Stewart’s performance as Anita, and the first act’s penultimate number, “Tonight,” can’t help but stir the soul.
The biggest revelation is the second act’s “Gee, Officer Krupke,” meant to lighten up the mood with a bit of pointed humor before the eventual dark close. It’s non-stop movement and unbridled energy, a show-stopper in every way that drew thunderous, well-deserved applause. This is immediately followed by the angry/tender duet between Anita and Maria (“A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”) as the two women mourn their losses and confront their helplessness when what the heart feels cannot be denied.
Much of the initial, muted critical response to “West Side Story” was based on the fact that it defied accepted musical theater standards. There’s no big, closing number. In its place is a body being carried off the stage and a distraught Maria standing alone, center stage, a shawl pulled up over her head. It’s been written that the opening night audience on Broadway simply didn’t know what to do when the lights went down -- there was stunned silence. Such was not the case in New Canaan. The audience knew exactly what to do -- get to its feet and applaud for a production that is just about near-perfect, thanks to a stellar cast and some very wise and deft direction and choreography.
If you see only one production this summer, make it STONC’s “West Side Story.” You won’t be disappointed.
For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org