West Side Story – Review by Tony Schillaci and Don Church

‘West Side Story’ is a gritty musical triumph at Ivoryton Playhouse in CT

The Ivoryton Playhouse has once again proven that big musical classics can be staged, danced and sung on a small stage. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this tragically, yet marvelous musical has been breathtakingly directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood.

West Side Story is set in a 50s depressed Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City (which has since become the urban-developed Lincoln Center area). The musical with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim originated on Broadway 60 years ago.

Two young lovers, Maria and Tony, from different ethnic backgrounds fall in love, and struggle to keep their love alive in a world of bigotry, hatred and violence. Maria is Puerto Rican and her brother Bernardo is leader of the Sharks gang. Tony is of a European immigrant family, and his best friend Riff is leader of the Jets gang. In that world of prejudice their love can never be allowed to survive.

Stephen Mir* expertly plays Tony with the boyish enthusiasm of someone who has never been in love before, and imbues his character with a freshness and naiveite of the excitement that comes with first love. His premonition song “Something’s Coming” showcases Mir’s lovely voice, and spotlights Tony’s optimism for the future.

Mia Pinero* makes her Ivoryton debut in the role of Maria — who falls in love at first sight with Tony at a dance at the gym. Their balcony scene later that night gives us the exceptionally well sung “Tonight” when we first hear Ms. Pinero’s exquisite voice blend beautifully with Mr. Mir’s. Maria is the ‘sensible’ one of the couple, recognizing that trouble will be ahead for them if their families and friends discover their affection for each other.

The ensemble cast, under the masterful direction of Mr. Underwood, superbly depicts the anger, angst, and hostilities of two male gangs and their respective girlfriends and admirers. The dance numbers are thrilling, from the rousing ‘Mambo’ piece at the gym to the moment that Natalie Madlon as Anita stunningly leads the chicas in the buoyant “America” number. (In the original production, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins brought the equally gifted choreographer, Peter Gennaro, to stage both above numbers.)  Current choreographer Todd L. Underwood has done himself proud by directing each of these dances brilliantly for the Ivoryton stage, at the end of which you’ll want to shout “OLE!”

Each actor/dancer/singer gives this show every ounce of energy and talent within their beings. Although only appearing in the first act, Victor Borjas as Maria’s brother Bernardo gives a tough menacing portrayal of what it means to be both protective of his family and hostile to anyone who threatens them. Also appearing only in act one is Bernardo’s arch rival, Riff, who leads the Jets in his hatred for the ‘others’ who are trying to steal his turf. Conor Robert Fallon* as Riff sings and dances the “Cool” number with the intense coolness that belies the repressed hostilities that are bubbling to the surface.

Throughout the production, the character of drugstore owner Doc, well-played by George Lombardo, tries to keep on lid on all the pent-up anger of the young gang members — his being the solo voice of sanity in a world of madness.

It might be noted that 60 years ago, the imagined street jargon of the Jets gang was written by Mr. Laurents (as well as in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics) at a time when the actual street words were not acceptable in the theater. However, the actors in the Ivoryton production have made it authentic under the direction of Mr. Underwood — speak the written words while you are thinking of words that you would be saying in the same circumstances today. Thus, the antiquated expressions “daddio,” and “cool” and the euphemisms “buggin,” mother-lovin’,” and “krup you” become fresh and new when spoken by these talented contemporary actors.

Tragedy always needs a bit of comic relief, and to see Colin Lee as the always-ready-for-a-fight ‘Action’ lead some of the Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke” is to see a tour-de-force of comedic energy. Mr. Lee gets every nuance of sarcasm out of the song, and his playful sparring with talented fellow actors Max Weinstein (A-Rab), Daniel Miller (Diesel) and Pierre Marais (Baby John) is something to cheer about.

In startling contrast is the beautiful balletic “Somewhere” in which the gorgeous voices of Francisca (Annelise Cepero) and Anybodys (Hillary Ekwall) lead the ensemble in a touching ballad, joined at the end by Tony and Maria. This is a song of tragic longing for somewhere safe and warm for the doomed lovers to spend an idealized future.

Close to the finale, Maria and Anita duet in “A Boy Like That” and “I Have a Love.” Ms. Pinero and Ms. Madlon do complete justice to Bernstein’s haunting melodies and Sondheim’s knowing lyrics.

Musical Director Michael Morris has taken this lush Bernstein score for full orchestra and brilliantly reduced it to a lush score for small orchestra without losing anything in the transition. Mr. Bernstein’s wonderfully eccentric riffs and rhythms and his sumptuous melodies have survived intact under the baton of maestro Morris and his 10 unseen but superb musicians.

And all that music and dialogue would be lost without the technical expertise of Sound Designer Tate R. Burmeister.

The set by Dan Nischan is dark and evocative of the mean streets of NYC. The clever use of the actors as stagehands between scenes shows a deft collaboration between the set designer and director as well as Stage Manager Laura Lynne Knowles assisted by Megan Wilcox.

Marcus Abbott’s lighting works to evoke the gloom of the streets as well as the wild action of the exuberant dance numbers. Costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina are a perfect fit for 1957’s Puerto Rican community as well as for ‘American’ boys and girls of the Jets.  (Now if only performer Arianne Meneses as Consuela would laughingly refuse to wear that frightful blonde wig!)

Big applause to the entire ensemble, whose names and credits will be found in the playbill when you see the show. Each actor deserves a special bow.

The Ivoryton Playhouse is fortunate to have Executive Producers Michael A. Dattilo and Frank Perrotti back on board for this production. A great big thank you to these guys — the theater’s unsung heroes.

WEST SIDE STORY runs at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30th, 2017. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Two additional Saturday matinee performances are on Saturday July 15 at 2pm, and Saturday July 29 at 2pm. Advance bookings are highly recommended.

Tickets are $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting  www.ivorytonplayhouse.org 

The Ivoryton Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, Connecticut.

*denotes member of Actors Equity


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