If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

A Revival of “West Side Story” at STONC

What would summer be like without an annual revival of “West Side Story”? Currently there are no less than two Connecticut productions of the sturdy Jerome Robbins classic at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan and Connecticut Repertory Theatre. I’ve yet to attend the CRT, but the rendering currently under STONC’s tent in Waveny Park is worth the trip.

Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a glorious score by Leonard Bernstein, “West Side Story” exploded on the scene in 1957 shocking Broadway audiences with its visceral story about rival gangs in New York City and the doomed love between Tony (Zach Schanne) and Maria (Julia Paladino). The Jets (Whites) and Sharks (Puerto Ricans) are warring gangs fighting over turf and, almost immediately, the STONC revival impresses with a group of young men who convince as street toughs and who can also nimbly sing and dance. No easy feat.

Directed by Melody Meitrott Libonati with choreography by Doug Shankman, this “West Side Story” moves along as briskly as tempers between the gangs flare and the ill-fated romance flowers. It’s interesting to remember that the musical only covers two days and Shankman and Libonati ably illustrate the speedy recklessness of youth whether the characters are seeking revenge or falling in love. The cast is up to the dancing rigors of the show with the standout being Katie Stewart playing the fiery Anita, girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo (a rather low-key Hector Flores Jr.). Miss Stewart commands the stage with ease, especially in the high-spirited “America” and in her powerful duet with Paladino, “A Boy Like That”.

Both Paladino and Schanne convince as a couple and their voices blend effectively on songs like “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”. Although Paladino’s accent wavers here and there, the chemistry she shares with Schanne is undeniable. In other roles, Jonny Wexler is excellent as the hot-headed Action who leads the Jets in one of the best renditions of “Gee, Officer Krupke” I’ve ever heard. Admirable here is the clarity of diction (from the entire cast throughout) in a complicated song that has Wexler enacting several characters while also delivering a highly athletic performance. Playing one of the few adult roles in the musical, Mike Boland’s Lt. Shrank nails the casual racism of the period which, unfortunately, still resonates today.

There are some oddly staged sections in evidence, however. The moving dream ballet sequence has the crucial characters of Riff and Bernardo blocked from view for most of the song and sight problems are also an issue at the emotional and too-rushed finale, where Libonati has positioned the victim far stage right instead of down center. There is good work from costumer Lauren Gaston here especially for the dream ballet but did she get a bulk rate for the Jets’ sneakers? They all appear identical and look brand new.

Charles Pavarini III’s scenic design is functional and effective.
It probably goes without saying that it’s great to hear that wonderful score again and at New Canaan it is played by a full orchestra under musical director David Hancock Turner. I was convinced the music was a recording, so rich and rewarding was the sound at STONC. All told, this is a fine revival of a classic musical that should never grow old.

“West Side Story” continues at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan in Waveny Park through July 31. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.966.4634 or visit: www.stonc.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.



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