West Side Story at STONC

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Fists, sticks, stones, knives, guns, bombs and drones -- as the weapons of hate keep escalating, we wonder if humans will ever learn to get along? While the whole world is falling apart and no one is safe from violence, “West Side Story,” is packing a powerful punch at Summer Theatre of New Canaan (STONC).

A collaboration of geniuses: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents,’ “West Side Story was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and tales that are even more ancient. It’s a modern, yet timeless tragedy about uncontrollable human nature, and it’s also one of the best, musicals ever written.

Because of its serious subject matter, there remains a debate over whether “West Side Story” should be termed a musical. Some feel it should be considered an “Opera,” others claim it’s a “Ballet.” I admit that I’m prejudiced in this regard. As a former dancer, this work is what I call a “Dansical” -- because the dancing hardly stops.

I also have some strong, personal feelings connected to “West Side Story.” For one thing, I happened to have known Lee Becker, who played the original tomboy, “Anybodys.” We were in the same ballet class, and I can tell you that in real life she was even tougher than her character role. This young, very aggressive woman died of cancer at the peak of her career -- after forming the highly successful, “American Dance Machine Company.” One of its last performances was at Westport Country Playhouse. The dancer left a husband and a young son -- a tragedy in itself. The rest of my personal feelings will remain just that.

At New Canaan, handsome Zach Schanne (Tony), and delicate, Julia Paladino (Maria) are a perfect pair. As they blend their rich voices, they are able to project the romantic electricity between them. “The Balcony Scene“ and “One Hand, One Heart” musical numbers could not have been more tender. The livelier, “Something’s Coming” and “I Feel Pretty” are delightfully animated solos and the two singing actors dance pretty well too.

Katie Stewart (Anita) is not only a firecracker, she dances like a rocket and her Spanish accent is good. We enjoyed her and her female compatriots in the show-stopping dance sequence, “America. “ Hector Flores Jr. (Bernardo) is a suave and fiery Shark leader while swaggering Naysh Fox (Riff) is someone whom the rival Jets understandably look up to.

“The “Jets” and the “Shark” gang members and their matching girlfriends are also true to life, and it’s hard to single anyone out. Each and every musical number received thunderous audience applause. The highly amusing, Jets sequence, “Gee, Officer Kropke” is a cleverly choreographed highlight that will be long remembered. This is because the inventive choreography and clever songs describe the ironies that still exist in our society.

The only problem is the staging of the final scene. Having the climatic action take place on the floor at the extreme, side of the stage, allowed only a portion of the audience to both see and feel the sudden shock. However, the impact and sorrowful aftermath was powerful!

STONC’S production is perfectly polished, and expertly directed by Melody Libonati. Doug Shankman’s choreography bursts with the flavor of Jerome Robbins’ original, finger-snapping dance sequences. The mood lighting by Dan Chapman and the convertible, set, designed by Charles Pavarini are excellent. Equally important, the orchestra, under the sensitive direction of David Turner, rivals the intensity of any live music on Broadway.

While it drizzled steadily outside, the audience was very comfortable under the all-weather tent at New Canaan’s Waveny Park. In fact, everyone was mesmerized by this stirring production and gave it an enthusiastic, standing ovation.

Plays to July 31 Tickets: 203-966-6177
This review appears in "ON CT & NY THEATRE" July/2016


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