CRT’s ”West Side Story” Soars

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

Something must be in the Connecticut air. Hartford Stage presented Romeo & Juliet this spring and this summer two theaters at opposite ends of the state are presenting West Side Story.

 The Connecticut Repertory Theater’s production in Storrs runs through July 17.

Overall this is a very good production. It is blessed with excellent production values and many fine performances.

I’m sure that everyone knows the basic outline of the plot: it is NYC in the 1950s and on the west side (think about where Lincoln Center is now), gangs patrol the streets. The division is not so much race as ethnicity: the recently arrived Puerto Ricans verssus the Italians, Polish and other who were born in the US though their parents immigrated. Into this mix, Leonard Bernstein (composer), Stephen Sondheim (lyricst) and Arthur Laurents (book) with the help of director Jerome Robbins created a compelling story.

Tony helped found the Jets but he is beginning to pull away; he is maturing but his best friend, Riff, and the others call on his loyalty for one last “rumble” against the Sharks, led by Bernardo. The complication is that at a dance designed to bring the warring groups together, Tony sees Bernardo’s sister, Maria, who has just arrived and the two fall instantly in love. Despite peace-making efforts, the road to tragedy cannot be detoured.

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Bernstein and Sondheim created a glorious jazz inspired score with haunting melodies from “Tonight” and “Maria” to “One Hand, One Heart,” ‘Somewhere,” and “I Have a Love.” They have also created some humorous numbers.  Robbins created dance that mixed ballet with modern dance and jazz to make the hatred and fights almost beautiful.

With what has been going on in the last months, some dialogue made me very uncomfortable. The police Lieutenant openly expresses his dislike (bordering on hatred) for the Puerto Ricans and encourages the Jets to “get rid of them” even offering to help. Yet at the same time, “Doc” the owner of the corner drugstore  tries to talk sense into the groups.

Kudos should go to scenic designer Tim Brown, and music direct N David Williams and the 12-piece orchestra.  Michael Vincent Skinner, the sound designer let the sound go a little too loud; when that happens soprano voices often sound screetchy.

But lighting designer Michael Chubowki created some terrific lighting effects particularly at the finale.

Christina Lorraine Bullard, the costume designer did a good job recreating the late ‘50s look, though she did better with the girls than the men. At times the men looked too much like Pat Boone to be believable as Jets.

Cassie Abate, a regular at CRT, has both directed and choreographed. She has channeled the Robbins choreography but added her own touches.

As the doomed lovers, Julia Estrada and Luke Hamilton make an attractive pair. Estrada has a lovely voice and shows us Maria’s vulnerability but also her strength. While Hamilton’s voice is also good, he needed more personality in the role; he looked and acted like any fresh faced kid.

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Anita and Bernardo. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Yuriel Echezarreta as Bernardo and Cassidy Stoner as Anita both give strong performances. Echezarreta may look a little old for the role, but the book can justify that Bernardo is older than the teenage Jets. He projects confidence and sexuality; no wonder the boyish Jets want him out. Stoner really delivers as Anita, particularly in “A Boy like That” and in the simulated rape scene.

The three adults have stereotypical roles: the cynical police officer (John Bixler), the ineffective beat cop (Nick Lawson) and the shop owner (Dale AJ Rose). Each makes the most of his role, but all are unable to get through to the young men.

Since the cast is uniformly good, it is hard to pick out other very good performances, but I did like both Bentley Black as Riff and TJ Newton as Chino.

Go see this production; it will entertain you but it may unsettle you. Are we still repeating the past?

West Side Story is at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs through July 17. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or crt.uconn.edu.

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

 

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