Monday, July 11, 2016

Theater Review West Side Story -- CT Repertory

Julia Estrada and Luke Hamilton PPhoto by Gerry Goodstein
Themes of West Side Story Are Timeless -- Unfortunately
By Lauren Yarger
“Hatred fueled by racism leads to violence and the death.”

Last week, that was news headline from which we were all reeling as protests erupted following police killings of black suspects in New Orleans and Minnesota and as five police officers were slain during a protest in Dallas. 

That also was the plot unfolding before our eyes as the timeless musical West Side Story opened the final production of CT Repertory’s Nutmeg Summer Series at UConn (where, near the Jorgensen Theatre, a memorial remembering the victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings stands as a reminder that this latest rash of violence spurred by hatred is not unique, but only the most recent.) 

Never have modern-day events blended so closely with theater, proving that the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical, with a book by Arthur Laurents based on a concept of Jerome Robbins who did the original choreography, is still relevant more than 50 years after making its Broadway debut.

It also proves that race problems in this country haven’t made a lot of progress. Then again, feuds based on hatred go back even farther than US history. West Side Story takes its inspiration from another tale: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

In the modernized, New-York set version, the star-crossed lovers are Tony (a miscast Luke Hamilton) and Maria (Julia Estrada). The two fall instantly in love, despite knowing that the relationship is forbidden.  Maria is the sister of Bernardo (Yurel Echezarreta), leader of the Sharks, a gang comprised of his fellow Puerto Ricans and some blacks. Tony is a former leader of the Jets, the white gang (Tony is short for Polish Anton in this version), headed now by Tony’s best friend, Riff (Bentley Black).

Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (a sparkling Cassidy Stoner) warns newly-arrived-in-America Maria to stay away from “A Boy Like That” and to stick to one of her own kind (cue headlines about immigration issues. . .). When the gangs meet at the drug store owned by Tony’s boss, Doc (Dale AJ Rose), to plan a rumble, police Officer Krupke (Nick Lawson) questions gang members to try to find out where it will be. Maria begs Tony to stop the fight, but with tragic consequences
Cassie Abate returns to CT Repertory to direct and to provide the very good choreography staged on Tim Brown’s minimal set where scenes are created with a few props and set pieces. Also enhancing the visual are Christina Lorraine Bullard’s colorful costumes.

NDavid Williams directs the beautiful Bernstein tunes, which comprise what could arguably called the best Broadway score ever and which includes classics like “Tonight, Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” and “Something’s Coming.” Tom McDonough conducts a 12-person band.
Estrada is a lovely Maria, lending a fine soprano, but Abate does little to keep actors from singing full out most of the time “One Hand, One Heart” feels like a belting match instead of a love song. The score is beyond the capability of Hamilton, however, who seems overwhelmed in the role. It’s a case of miscasting, because the actor turned a fine performance right there at CT Rep when he played Sonny in Xanadu.

Black and Echezarreta bring fire to the rival gang leaders (as well as some good singing and dancing skills). The fight choreography is exciting and well executed. Standing out in this production is Stoner, who brings layers and spirit to Anita in her CT Repertory debut.

Here’s hoping that soon when we see a production of West Side Story we’ll think, “Gee, all that racial hatred was really a big problem in the past…”

West Side Story plays through July 17 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the Storrs campus of UConn. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Matinees at 2 pm Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $12 to $55:; (860) 486-2113.

Full credits and casting:
Production:  Music by Leonard Bernstein and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Arthur Laurents based on a concept of Jerome Robbins; Direction and Choreography by Cassie Abate, Scenic and Projection Design by Tim Brown,  Lighting Design by Michael Chybowski, Costume Design by Christina Lorraine Bullard, Sound Design by Michael Vincent Skinner, Technical Direction by John W. Parmelee, Musical Direction by NDavid Williams, Conducting and Piano by Tom McDonough 

Yurel Echezarreta…. Bernardo
Luke Hamilton…. Tony
Julia Estrada…. Maria
Bentley Black…. Riff
Cassidy Stoner…. Anita
Chino…. TJ Newton
Jose Luaces…. Indio
Gabriel Bernal …. Anxious
John Bixler…. Lt. Schrank/Gladhand
Nick Lawson…. Officer Krupke
Dale AJ Rose…. Doc
Olivia Benson, Rebekah Morgan Berger, Dalton Bertolone, Brian Binion, Jacob Burns, Gerald Caesar, Susie Carroll, Tori Gresham, Caroline Iliff, Liam Johnson, Aaron Bennett Miller, Janayla Montes, TJ Newton, Alyssa Sarnoff, Cassidy Stoner, Adria Swan, Ty Taylor and Ross Thompson….. Ensemble

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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