By Karen Isaacs
If you have never seen the classic musical, West Side Story, then hurry off to Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30 to see its fine production.
Is it perfect? No, but very few productions are. This production has many more plusses than minuses. It illustrates how far this small theater has come over the years that they can pull off this type of show.
In case you don’t know the show – is there anyone who hasn’t seen a production or the movie? – it is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet set in New York City in the mid-50s. Two teenage gangs are battling for turf — the Jets represent those who have been in the city for a generation – Italians, Polish and other eastern Europeans. The Sharks who are increasing in numbers are newcomers from Puerto Rico.
The two gangs can’t co-exist in the tenement neighborhoods on NY’s west side, many of which will be torn down to make way for the Lincoln Center complex. But just as in Romeo & Juliet, two young people from opposite sides fall in love with tragic results. Tony (a Jet) falls in love with Maria (whose brother leads the Sharks).
What is striking in the show (and discomforting) is the obvious racism of the police, particularly Lt. Schrank who not only uses racial slurs to refer to the Puerto Ricans but who actively encourages the Jets to “force them out.”
The show was created by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robins (director/choreographer). The show brought a jazzy urban score to Broadway as well as extensive use of dance that incorporated ballet and modern dance.
Ivoryton has assembled a fine cast with Todd L. Underwood as director/choreographer and Michael Morris as musical director.
Mia Pinero is luminous as Maria, a young woman who has recently arrived in the city and is experiencing her first love. She has a lovely voice that can be tremulous when necessary and full of determination at other times. You don’t want to take your eyes off of her.
Stephen Mir as Tony is more problematic. His voice is excellent, yet he sometimes seems to lack the passion called for. Another problem is that he looks very young – I would peg him for 16 or 17 at the oldest. Yet he is supposedly one of the founders (with Rif) of the Jets; he is no longer in school but works fulltime in Doc’s drugstore. As one of the leaders – although he is distancing himself from the gang – he is presumably one of its best fighters. Mir just doesn’t look the role. Conor Robert Fallon as Rif has a more appropriate look.
The two other main roles are Anita and Bernardo. Bernardo is Maria’s older brother and leader of the Sharks and Anita is his girlfriend and thus the leader of the girls. Natalie Madion as Anita is beautiful and dances very well. She projects the self-confidence that Maria is just gaining. Victor Borjas is smooth as Bernardo, but he frankly looks much too old for the part. Bernardo is older than the others but Borjas could pass for early 30s which seems inappropriate for the role. Yet he too carries the singing and dancing well.
The rest of the company is excellent, though sometimes it is hard to differentiate the characters.
Underwood has managed the small Ivoryton stage very well and created dances that draw on Robbins’ choreography while being original. The cast works hard and achieves a lot.
My one quibble is his handling of the song “Somewhere” – it has been staged many different ways and sung by different characters, though most of us remember the film where it was a duet for Tony and Maria. Here the initial chorus is sung by Anita and Anybodys (the young girl who wants desperately be a Jet), with the ensemble joining in before it becomes Tony and Maria’s duet. Many of the ensemble are dressed in white (but not all) so you can wonder if they are angels, ghosts, or what. It was the most distracting part of the show.
Credit must be given to the 10-piece orchestra that is hidden away under the direction of Michael Morris.
Daniel Nischan has created a concrete jungle that can be transformed from a school playground, to the dress shop and drug store where Maria and Tony work and other locations.
Overall the costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina are 50ish. But the men’s hairstyles are not really correct for the period. They need the Elvis look – pompadours, Brill cream, etc. and they don’t have them.
Sound Designer Tate R. Burmeister and lighting designer Marcus Abbott do excellent work. The sound never blares and you can hear the lyrics. The lighting, particularly in the scene under the bridge is exquisite.
West Side Story runs through July 30. Get tickets at Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.
Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater
By Karen Isaacs
“All that Jazz”: The long-running musical Chicago by Kander and Ebb hits the Ivoryton Playhouse stage, Sun. July 24. Todd Underwood is directing and choreographing the musical which features several performers familiar to Ivoryton audiences: Christopher Sutton as Billy Flynn, Lynn Philistine as Roxie Hart and Sheniqua Trotman as Mama Morton. For tickets visit ivorytonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318 for tickets.
On Sale Now: Tickets are now sale for the Palace Theater, Waterbury’s presentation of Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage scheduled for Oct. 7-9. For tickets call 203-346-2000 or visit palacetheaterct.org.
Nostalgic Music at Long Wharf: If you are looking for a light-weight but enjoyable entertainment on a hot summer night, Long Wharf is bringing back the production of The Bikinis from Wed., July 13 to Sun., July 31. The excuse for stringing together lots of great songs from the ‘60s and beyond is the story of a hit girls group from the Jersey shore who, 20 years later are trying to raise money to preserve the Sandy Shores Mobile Home Beach Resorts. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.
Seven for Next Season: Playhouse on Park in West Harford is planning seven productions for its 2016-17 season. Three musicals are included: Little Shop of Horrors (Sept.14-Oct. 16), [title of show] from Jan. 11 to 29, and Rockin’ the Forest (March 29–April 9)) by stop/time dance theater. The Playhouse will also present: Unnecessary Farce (Nov. 2-20), Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (Feb. 15 –March 5), Last Train to Nibroc (April 26-May 14); and concludes with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – Revised Edition, June 28-July 30. For subscriptions or information contact playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10. Tickets for individual productions go on sale Aug. 1.
Midsummer (a play with songs) in Hartford: TheaterWorks is presenting an aptly titled play, Thursday, July 14 to Sunday, Aug. 21. According to the press materials, “It’s a midsummer weekend in Edinburgh and it’s raining. Bob’s a failing car salesman on the fringes of the city’s underworld. Helena’s a high-powered divorce lawyer with a taste for other people’s husbands. She’s totally out of his league; he’s not her type at all. They absolutely should not sleep together. Which is, of course, why they do. Midsummer is the story of a great-lost weekend of bridge-burning, car chases, wedding bust-ups, bondage miscalculations, midnight trysts and self-loathing hangovers.” It was written by Scottish articsts indie rocker Gordon McIntyre and playwright David Gried. For tickets, call 860-527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org.
One Musical, Two Productions: West Side Story will be at opposite ends of the state this summer. The Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn in Storrs production runs through Sunday, July 17. Several Broadway performers are starring in the production directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate: Yurel Echezarreta (whose credits include Broadway’s Matilda, Aladdin, La Cage aux Folles and the 2009 West Side Story revival) plays Bernardo. Jose Lucas of (A Christmas Story) plays Indio; Luke Hamilton plays Tony and Julia Estrada is Maria. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.
The second production, at Summer Theater of New Canaan, runs through Sunday, July 31. Casting was not available at press time; STONC performs at Waverly Park under an all-weather, open-air tent theater. Seating is provided. For tickets or information call 203-966-4634 or visit stonc.org.
New Artistic Director: With the departure to the University of Michigan of Vincent J. Cardinal who has served as artistic director for many years, The Connecticut Repertory Theater which is part of the UConn’s theater program has named Michael Bradford as its new artistic director. Bradford has been at UConn since 2001 and is an accomplished playwright. Congratulations; I look forward to seeing in what direction he will take CRT in the coming years.
New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for the Broadway run of Dear Evan Hansen, the off-Broadway musical that garnered many awards this past year. It opens Oct. 3 at the Belasco Theater with Ben Platt of Pitch Perfect starring as the teen struggling for identity amidst chaos. Tickets are available at telecharge.com. Telecharge is also now selling tickets for the revival of Les Liasions Dangereuses starring Janet Mcteer and Liev Shreiber. It begins previews on Oct. 8 and runs through Jan. 22. The all-star revival of the antic comedy Front Page begins previews Sept. 20 with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Rosemary Harris, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse. Tickets are at Telecharge.
Did you know that CBS censored the signing in the performance of Spring Awakening broadcast on the Tonys? Some of the American Sign Language was changed; the last time the show was on the Tonys for the original production, CBS had them change some lyrics; this time the lyrics were OK but the signing wasn’t!
What Will Be Open? If you are planning Broadway theater-going in August or early September, it may easier to figure what IS playing rather than what has closed. Lots of theaters will be available for fall productions. Already closed are shows that won Tony awards for acting: Eclipsed, The Father, Long Day’s Journey into Night; all were limited runs. Also closed are the long-running revival of The King and I as well as the new musical Bright Star. In July the revivals of She Loves Me, The Crucible and Fully Committed will close. In a surprise, the producers of the new musical Shuffle Along, or… will close when Audra MacDonald goes on maternity leave. Late August and early September mark the closings of Finding Neverland, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Les Miserables, Fun Home and An Act of God. Plus, earlier closings included American Psycho, Disaster, Tuck Everlasting, and the limited run of Blackbird. The only shows opening during the summer are the revival of Cats and the limited run return of Motown: the Musical.