Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of WEST SIDE STORY (WSS) at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)
Through July 17th
Summer 2016 is Pillow Talking’s season for West Side Story, the epic love story conceived by Jerome Robbins, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Within a few months, I’ll have gone from being a West Side Story virgin to a three-time veteran. This brings with it the good and the bad – for me. It can be challenging to review the same work one time after the next and still keep it fresh. On the other hand, in each production, every company of actors, every director, and all of the rest of the contributing parties (costumers, set designers, lighting, etc.) make it their own. So while the story remains the same (and I wish it didn’t – I still leave wanting a new ending!) I myself have a different story to tell.
This most recent performance we saw took place at UCONN’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) and at the outset, I must say as I’ve said many times before, (CRT) is like a sparkling gem – and the shows they create are similarly as polished, gleaming, and utterly desirable. One of the first questions I always ask of the actors to whom we have the good fortune to meet following the opening night performance is, How do they feel about being a part of CRT and their very special program? – one which combines the talents of professional actors with UCONN’s BFA and MFA theatre students. I invariably hear the same thing – they love it! And it shows! When performers love what they are doing, and it is done in an environment which cultivates, supports, and allows their talents to shine, it is virtually impossible to have any other sort of outcome.
That all being said, CRT took on the poignant behemoth musical which tells the classic Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of young lovers whose attraction and passion cannot be suppressed, despite their very different backgrounds and the dogged efforts of all who wish to keep them apart. Set in 1950s Upper West Side, NYC, gang rivalry, violence, prejudice and discrimination abound. With our current social and political climate in 2016, this show couldn’t be more relevant. But for Polish-American Tony and Puerto Rican Maria it is love at first sight – and it is a love which transcends all of the hatred spewed forth by their warring brothers and sisters. But as it was for the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, it is ultimately ill-fated and tragic.
West Side Story was CRT’s Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal’s swan song, and he couldn’t have chosen a more fitting show to end his own professional run at CRT and that of their 2016 Nutmeg Summer Series. Cardinal is moving on in the fall to a new position at University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance as chair of the Department of Musical Theatre. Connecticut’s loss is certainly Michigan’s gain and he’ll be greatly missed!
Ably directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate with musical direction by NDavid Williams, West Side Story is real and it is affecting. Through a pulsating score and passionate dance, it evokes all of the uplifting emotion of an engaging and endearing love story and all of the engulfing pathos of tragic heartbreak. Lovers Maria and Tony, played by Julia Estrada and Luke Hamilton, respectively, portray the couple with a palpably intense attraction. Estrada’s exquisite soprano voice is flawless; her joy and her pain equally searing the hearts of the audience. Hamilton lends exceptional warmth to Tony, with pure authenticity and a wonderful voice that lends itself to the many layers of the character.
Bentley Black brings incredible song and dance ability to the role of Riff and does so with remarkable vivacity. Yurel Echezarreta is an extraordinary Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. He imparts equal parts pride, masculinity, and loyalty along with wonderful acting, singing, and dancing ability. Anita, played by Cassidy Stoner, is charismatic, feisty, and strong (with an incredibly beautiful head of hair!) Her presence on stage is electric through both song and dance.
TJ Newton was a convincing Chino, the short-tempered and vengeful second in command to Bernardo. Adria Swan, whom we last saw in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” was great as the inimitable Anybodys, a role she successfully made her own. Dale AJ Rose is a wonderful Doc, the moral compass of the story, giving a heartfelt dose of truth to the gangs on more than one occasion. John Bixler, whom we also saw in “How to Succeed…,” was a terrific but repugnant Detective Schrank as well as doubling as the humorous Gladhand. Nick Lawson did a fine job as the dim Officer Krupke.
This show cannot work without a stellar ensemble cast of triple threats who can act, sing, and dance; and it is quite a company to list but I don’t want to leave out anyone as the talented parts are as important as the engaging whole. The Jets and their Girls: Liam Johnson as Action, Jacob Burns as A-Rab, Ross Thompson as Baby John, Dalton Bertolone as Big Deal, Aaron Bennett Miller as Diesel, Ty Taylor as Snowboy, Olivia Benson as Graziella, Alyssa Sarnoff as Velma, and Caroline Iliff as Minnie. The Sharks and their Girls: Gerald Caesar as Pepe, Jose Luaces as Indio, Brian Binion as Luis, Gabriel Bernal as Anxious, Tori Gresham as Rosalia, Susie Carroll as Consuelo, Iliff doubles as Teresita, Janayla Montes as Francisca, and Rebekah Morgan Berger as Margarita.
Without exception, the musical numbers were excellent; The Jets and The Sharks set the tone for the production with the “Prologue” followed by Riff, Action, Baby John, A-Rab, Big Deal, and The Jets with “Jet Song.” A few of my other favorites were “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” featuring Tony and Maria; “America,” featuring Anita, Rosalia, and the Shark Girls; “Cool,” featuring Riff and The Jets; “Gee, Officer Krupke” featuring Action, Snowboy, and The Jets – they hilariously nailed it as they lampooned Krupke. Anita and Maria also were haunting in “I Have a Love.”
Tim Brown did a fantastic job with scenic design, evoking the look and feel of the Upper West Side Streets as well as Doc’s Drugstore, the dance hall, the bridal shop, and Maria’s bedroom and balcony. Sound design by Michael Vincent Skinner and lighting design by Michael Chybowski as well as costume design by Christina Lorraine Bullard, technical direction by John W. Parmalee, and stage management by Tom Kosis ensured a very tight, well-executed production. Kudos also to the band: Yaroslav Tereschenko and Christa Conway on violin; Rich Chiaraluce, Philip Plott, and Doug Lang on reeds; David Clough on trumpet; Jim Lendvay on trombone; Seth Lisle on bass; Nick Cutreneo on guitar; Richard Gustamaccio and John Giacchi on percussion; and Tom McDonough on piano.
Once revolutionizing Broadway musical theatre and blazing its boards, this heartrending tale of love and loss, loyalty and revenge is one that never grows old. It is powerful, it is timely, and CRT did Jerome Robbins incredible masterpiece justice. It is too bad it only runs two weekends, but it is well worth the trip to Storrs!
I remember the first time I saw West Side Story (WSS), I was a kid and I saw it on television. I saw many versions after that, from real community theatre versions to Broadway revivals. In all of those viewings I had categorized WSS as the modern reworking of Romeo & Juliet. It was only recently that I saw the play with new eyes and in a new context. WSS is so much more than just a reworking of the doomed star-crossed lovers tale. Indeed, in today’s society with everything happening from Orlando’s mass shootings to social unrest, WSS is more relevant now than ever before. It transcends the story of ill-fated love between teenagers and delves into prejudice, bigotry, intolerance, bullying and so much more. It is a tale of our times — more than a cautionary tale — it is a reflection of the soul of our society.
So it is with that mindset that I saw Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s (CRT) production of WSS. It did not disappoint. It was inspiring in so many ways, not the least of which that the entire production was mounted with only two weeks rehearsal! Once again, CRT’s tried and true formula of using seasoned professionals with students succeeded in presenting an iconic play filled with verve and vibrancy. The wonderful and talented cast makes you care about the characters. Even though I know the ending so well, I was hoping for a miracle at the end and both Tony and Maria could go off to their happily ever after.
WSS has a fascinating history in that was originally developed as a vehicle to show the tensions between a Jewish and Catholic family. It was initially called East Side Story. It was only after years of back and forth and several failed attempts at development that the play we now know as West Side Story emerged. The book was by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who made his Broadway debut with WSS).The production was originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
With respect to CRT’s production, Cassie Abate did an absolutely amazing job of directing AND choreographing the play. She handled the Herculean task of double duty for a show like this with great creativity and vision. I think of WSS and I think of Broadway-sized staging. When I first heard that CRT was going to do WSS, I felt like reaching out to Artistic Director Vincent Cardinal and asking, “Are you sure?: Little did I realize at the time that I had nothing to worry about as the production was in the very capable hands of Ms. Abate.
The cast was terrific. The five leads all brought their formidable triple threat talents (acting, singing, dancing) to their roles: Luke Hamilton as Tony; Julia Estrada as Maria; Yurel Echezarreta as Bernardo; Bentley Black as Riff; and last, but not least, Cassidy Stoner as Anita. Both Luke’s and Julia’s powerful voices cut through the auditorium like a thunderbolt, bringing with it goosebumps — a sure sign that a play is working for me. Both could hang notes up in the stratosphere longer than a pair of eagles out for a joy flight. The adult characters, all stage veterans, played their parts to perfection; to wit: Dale AJ Rose as Doc; John Bixler as Schrank; and Nick Lawson as the much-maligned Officer Krupke. Although the cast is extremely large, they all deserve a special mention for their wonderful performances: Liam Johnson (Action), Jacob Burns (A-Rab), Ross Thompson (Baby John), Dalton Bertolone (Big Deal), Aaron Bennett Miller (Diesel), Ty Taylor (Snowboy), Adria Swan (Anybodys), TJ Newton (Chino), Gerald Caesar (Pepe), Jose Luaces (Indio), Brian Binion (Luis) and Gabriel Bernal (Anxious). Whew! And I’m not done yet! Props to The Girls: Olivia Benson (Graziella), Alyssa Sarnoff (Velma), Caroline Iliff who doubled in both gangs as Minnie and Teresita, Tori Gresham (Rosalia), Susie Carroll (Consuela), Janayla Montes (Francisca) and Rebekah Morgan Berger (Margarita). Now deep breath! (I think this was the first time that I learned all of the names of both gangs and their girls!)
Big nods to Music Director NDavid Williams, Conductor/Pianist Thomas McDonough and the band who did a superb job bringing the great musical numbers to life. A special nod to Scenic Designer Tim Brown who brought the ambience of New York’s West Side to the CRT’s stage with such great verisimilitude.
All in all, CRT’s West Side Story is an engaging and entertaining piece of theatre that should not be missed!