West Side Story – Review by Geary Danihy

The West Side of Ivoryton

There must be something in the Connecticut water or air that has recently fascinated local theaters with Sharks and Jets. First, Connecticut Repertory took a shot, which was followed by the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s admirable efforts, and now it’s the Ivoryton Playhouse’s turn to stage the classic 1957 musical West Side Story. Given Ivoryton’s core audience it’s easy to see why the decision was made to produce the show, and based on a recent matinee I attended it was a smart decision because the house was packed, and not just with aging Boomers.

Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins (he initially wanted to focus on conflict between an Irish family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side), with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (with many echoes of Aaron Copland’s compositions) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical is an updating of the Romeo and Juliet story with the conflict now between an “all-American” gang, the Jets, and its Puerto Rican counterpart, the Sharks. As directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood, Ivoryton’s offering is pleasing on many levels limited only by the theater’s configuration which required a certain amount of down-sizing and somewhat restricted dance movements.

Backed by a 10-member orchestra which is sequestered beneath the stage, the young cast delivers such familiar numbers as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” with verve and style. There’s certainly no absence of energy on the stage, and although some of the “big” production numbers seem somewhat “squashed,” there’s no getting around the fact that the iconic score and tragic love story subtly work their way into your heart.

As for the performances, anyone with eyes and ears would have to lead off with Mia Pinero playing Maria. She is luminous from start to finish and her dulcet voice enraptures. Whether commenting on how she looks (“I Feel Pretty”) or forcing Anita (a saucy Natalie Madion) to remember what it is like to be in love (“A Boy Like That” – “I Have a Love”), Pinero shines, and the final moments of the musical, which demand that she confront all of those who are responsible for the tragedy, are dramatically satisfying.

Maria’s “Romeo,” Tony, is played by Stephen Mir, who has a strong voice but seems just a bit reserved in the role, and there seems to be a lack of passion infused into such numbers as “Maria.” He sings it as if he’s recording a cover of the song for an album rather than as a young man overwhelmed by emotions he has never experienced before, yet he is visibly (and satisfyingly) ardent in the “One Hand, One Heart” duet with Pinero.

The afore-mentioned Madion nails the world-wise Anita, especially in the “America” number, though her paramour, Bernardo (Victor Borjas) seems not to project the passion and suavity the role calls for. Of special note is Hillary Ekwall in the tomboy role of Anybodys – she’s brash and spunky, but then delivers a touching scene with Anita in the “Somewhere” number (nicely choreographed by Underwood).

As anyone who is familiar with the Ivoryton theater knows, the stage is not very deep, has limited wings and no real fly space. Scenic designer Daniel Nischan deserves a great deal of credit for creating a flexible set that allows for scenes on the street, in a candy store, a dress shop, a playground and Maria’s bedroom (plus the obligatory fire-escape “balcony”). However, he’s used up a lot of limited space, which must have presented certain problems for Underwood as choreographer. He basically had stage right and left to work with and almost no room upstage. Thus, with 10 or 12 dancers on stage, much of their movement is, perforce, lateral. The problems Underwood faced are most evident in the staging of the “Cool” number, which requires that the members of the Jets “explode.” They do, but the constrictions are obvious. However, Underwood deserves a lot of credit for capturing the flavor of the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography without producing a carbon copy, and his work with the four Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke” is quite imaginative.

Any quibbles aside, Ivoryton’s West Side Story essentially delivers the goods and should keep packing them in. The emotional pull of the musical is so strong and the music so familiar that you can’t help but be drawn into the story, and whenever Pinero is on stage you can’t help but, well, melt. It’s easy to see why Tony is smitten.

West Side Story runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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