Credit is due to Artistic and Executive Director of Ivoryton Playhouse, Jacqueline Hubbard. When I spoke to her about the playhouse putting on a production of the Leonard Bernstein classic musical “West Side Story,” she had the utmost confidence and excitement in her creative team, but I had my reservations.
The classic tale of forbidden love, inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” between a Polish boy and a Puerto Rican girl in the midst of a gang war on the West Side of Manhattan, is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of musical theater.
Ivoryton is a rather intimate theater, with a stage that never feels like it can hold more than a dozen people at any given time, and something on the scale of “West Side Story” doesn’t seem to give the impression that it would work. But as Hubbard said at Friday night’s opening, it was something they had wanted to do for years, but didn’t know if they could. Director and Choreographer Todd L. Underwood told Hubbard he could pull it off, and he did.
That’s not to say that successfully erecting a production of “West Side Story” at Ivoryton doesn’t come without sacrifices. The cast of characters has been pared down from the original 40 to an economical 23 — 24 if you count Rick Malone playing two roles: Lt. Schrank and Glad Hand. The original 31 piece orchestration has also been reduced to 11.
This makes the scale of the show feel a little anemic at times. It sometimes feels odd that there would be only four or five members of the two rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, in some scenes. The grandness and complexity of Bernstein’s composition is missing sometimes, particularly the more bombastic brass parts, which doesn’t have as much weight with a keyboard covering the missing elements. It also causes a bit of drag on a couple songs as well.
That aside, Underwood has done a remarkable job. He was even able to incorporate a significant portion of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography onto the stage and successfully compacted the blocking and maneuvering of scenes and characters to make the show entertaining and intimate.
Daniel Nischan did an impressive job of utilizing the stage to compact the show’s scale with two flat towers on either side of the stage that open up to create more space for the school dance.
The performances overall were exceptional. Conor Robert Fallon’s Riff is electric, capturing the teen angst on an explosive scale. He gave Riff a need for his co-gang founder Tony (Stephen Mir) that was passionate and almost heartbreaking.
Natalie Madlon gave a striking performance as Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo (Victor Borjas), leader of the Sharks, and close friend of Maria (Mia Pinero), sister of Bernardo, who is in love with Tony. Madlon draws attention every time she’s on stage. She gives Anita confidence and strength, full of sexual energy in her lust for Bernardo and love for Maria as she keeps Maria and Tony’s affair secret.
Pinero and Mir have great voices and shine vocally in their roles. Pinero gives a strong acting performance as well, especially in the second act as her world begins to crumble around her.
Mir, though he has a great voice, does not maintain the energy that the rest of the cast has. The “Prologue” and “Jet Song,” which open the show, kick the show off with an insatiable force from the ensemble, but as soon as the scene transitions to the first real dialogue scene, between Riff and Tony, Fallon is still electric from the opening, while Mir drags the energy down. It’s an imbalance that could be rectified by a little more anticipation on Mir’s part. He talks about an intangible feeling that he’s been having for the past week, which leads to his first song, “Something’s Coming.” It’s a vibrant number of hope and anticipation that Tony isn’t able to contain, but Mir doesn’t give Tony the necessary level of aspiration.
The ensemble is great though. They are full of vim and verve that a collective of angst-ridden, hormone-driven teens with authority issues should have.
Ivoryton’s “West Side Story” has its flaws, but for the most part, they are expected flaws that come with requiring a downsizing of a show that is supposed to done on a larger scale. That said; if I was part of the creative team at Ivoryton, I would feel proud of accomplishing this production. It’s ambitious and something that in all reality should have never been tried. But the cast and crew managed to pull it off and should be heartily commended.