Tony Toughen Up!
By Geary Danihy
The music fades, the lights dim, and from across the gym turned into a dance hall Tony and Maria see each other for the first time, and it’s love at first sight. The scene, as staged in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “West Side Story,” is poignant but, alas, just a touch unbelievable, for we are asked to accept that there is instant chemistry between these two and, unfortunately, it’s just not there. The fault is in the casting, and since the couple’s rapturous engagement is the impetus for the musical’s development, it’s a detriment to an otherwise enjoyable production.
When it first appeared in 1957, “West Side Story” was an iffy proposition for its writer, Arthur Laurents, composer Elmer Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, given that it is based on a Shakespearean tragedy and that much of the story is told via dance, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins. There’s also the ending, which left early audiences speechless – no big finale, just a body being carried off the stage and a forlorn young woman dealing with her loss. Of course, it eventually triumphed and went on to join the list of great American musicals.
CRT’s production, directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate, is sufficiently dark and gritty, staged against a background of metal bars, fences and drab colors (compliments of scenic designer Tim Brown) that capture the metropolitan jungle, the turf that the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks (read Montagues and Capulets), fight over and seek to control. This internecine conflict, fueled by racism and poverty, is set against the dreams and desires of the two young lovers, Maria (Julia Estrada) and Tony (Luke Hamilton). Love is a powerful emotion, but in the world of “West Side Story” it cannot defeat anger, fear and hatred.
Estrada is a winsome, stars-in-her-eyes Maria. Initially girlishly giddy, she transforms into a mourning woman who forces the opposing gangs to come together. Blessed with a beautiful voice, she shines in “Tonight, “One Hand, One Heart” and her duet with Anita (Cassidy Stoner), “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Hamilton is also well-voiced, but his take on Tony is that of a teenager awash in emotions of first love. He bounces up and down, as if envisioning a much-wanted birthday present, in “Something’s Coming” and simply does not convey the gravitas of a young man who has once been the leader of a gang.
Bentley Black, playing Riff, the current Jets leader, fares much better. He exudes authority, and in “Cool,” you accept that he has the ability to quell the emotions of the gang members eager to rumble. On the opposite side, Yurel Echezarreta, as Bernado, leader of the Sharks, is a dark force, a character that contains both anger and frustration behind a machismo facade. As for his girl friend, Anita, although Stoner may sometimes push the sauciness a bit too far, she nails the lead in “America” with her tart taunting of Rosalia (Tori Gresham), who wishes to return to Puerto Rico.
There are some stand-out moments in this production, chief among them the penultimate number in the first act, the rousing, operatic reprise of “Tonight,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets humorous send-up of the societal forces they must contend with: the police, the judicial system and representatives of the various social services who see them as nothing more than “cases” to be labeled and dealt with appropriately. There’s also the wonderfully staged “Dance at the Gym” sequence, in which Abate’s chorography is the strongest. Less so is the dream-like “Somewhere” in the second act – for all of its movement, it seems somewhat static and contrived. As a comparison, see what choreographer Doug Shankman did with the same number in Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of “West Side Story” (running though July 31).
CRT’s production is definitely enjoyable, but its parts don’t seem to add up to a consistent whole, as if Abate was unable to settle on a complete vision of what the production should be. At times very professional, it all too often seems to slip into staging and tentativeness one might associate with a high school show.
“West Side Story” runs through July 17. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.