In many ways, reinvention keeps theater alive. From Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall giving “Cabaret” new depth and danger to John Doyle stripping down Sondheim’s masterpieces, some of our most beloved works are made new, exciting and relevant by letting us look differently at songs and stories we’re seen many times before. The fact that people recently protested the Public Theater’s reimagined “Julius Caesar” – a play that was written more than 400 years ago – perfectly illustrates how a director can make old work feel innovative and even shocking again.
I thought a lot about reinvention watching Ivoryton Playhouse’s “West Side Story,” as this production, like almost everyone across the country, is virtually unchanged from the template Jerome Robbins created in 1957. While director and choreographer Todd L. Underwood does good work making this big dance musical fit on the intimate Ivoryton stage, there’s a reason his name is listed below, and in a smaller font than, Mr. Robbins’ in the program. Here is the finger-snapping you’d come to expect, the number with the bridal shop dummies, the balletic street fights, the grey New York buildings in the background. That is to say, while this “West Side Story” is lovingly re-created by talented artists and features some beautiful touches, there isn’t a moment you didn’t expect before the lights dimmed.
But perhaps that’s what people want. Robbins’ choreography is as much a part of “West Side Story” as Bernstein’s angular, sweeping, Latin-inspired score. Presenting it with a different vision would probably violate both performance contracts and audiences’ trust. In fact, theatergoers almost revolted when Spanish lyrics were added to the last Broadway revival. So the indifference towards carbon-copy productions may be mine and mine alone. It sure didn’t seem to bother my fellow Ivoryton audience members who deservedly gave the show a rousing standing ovation.
Describing the plot of “West Side Story” seems superfluous – any reader of a theater blog will know the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story about a star-crossed romance between Polish-American Tony (Stephen Mir) and Puerto Rican immigrant Maria (Mia Pinero). Of course, Tony is a founding member of the Jets gang along with his buddy Riff (Conor Robert Fallon) while Maria’s brother Bernardo (Victor Borjas) is head honcho of the Sharks. The score, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, features such classics as “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Cool.”
It’s a simple plotline for sure, made even more so by the one-dimensional cutouts that populate the story. This is the kind of play where two people fall hopelessly in love over a single measure of music. As Maria, Pinero makes that hair-trigger romance feel almost plausible. She has a stunning operatic soprano, yet feels like a flesh-and-blood teenager who is flirty and naïve but innately wise to the tumultuous world around her. Also doing fantastic work is Natalie Madlon, an extremely talented college junior, whose Anita brought a lot of fire and personality to the stage that was often missing on the Jets’ side.
While Mir has a lovely, multicolored tenor and an endearing boyish charm, his Tony fell a little flat. He’s a street kid who longs for a more fulfilling and peaceful existence, yet Mir’s nice-guy Tony lacked any real kind of intensity or danger. That problem was evident with the gang members too, as some of the early brawls felt more like a group of theater kids fighting over whether LaChiusa or Lippa had a better “Wild Party” score than hardcore thugs out for blood. That is to say, most characters in this production would benefit from feeling more “young, scrappy and hungry,” to quote another famous Puerto Rican.
Despite a certain softness, the supporting cast were all great dancers and strong performers. Their youthful energy made “Gee, Officer Krupke” a stand-out, perhaps only equaled by Madlon’s cheeky “America.” Borjas, Fallon, Hillary Ekwall (as Anybodys) and Annelise Capero (as Francesca) all have moments to shine, with some mention to George Lombardo who provides the show’s voice of reason as Doc.
Director Underwood cleanly stages the large cast, preventing any on-stage traffic jams and creating some beautiful stage pictures. This is aided by Daniel Nischan’s unfolding urban set and Marcus Abbot’s lighting, which followed our lovers around in an otherworldly spotlight.
After 50 years of homages, parodies and replicas, it’s easy to forget that “West Side Story” was a revolutionary piece of theater in its day. Not just did Bernstein’s multicultural music bridge the gap between Broadway, jazz and Latin songwriting, but the material was incredibly subversive to theatergoing audiences. In his review of the original production, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson called the plot “horrifying” and filled with “wildness, ecstasy and anguish.” For the first act, it’s easy for the dated theatrics and 1950s jibber-jabber to cloud that sense of horror and leave “West Side Story” feeling like a culturally important but old-fashioned relic. As Tony and Maria’s love met a tragic end, though, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps “West Side Story’s” reinvention did happen, it just occurred outside the theater.
In this past year, the struggles of immigrants (legal or otherwise) are at the forefront of American politics. Gun violence still haunts our cities and xenophobic rhetoric is heard from the White House down to the most average citizen. The lyric (rewritten for the 1961 film) “Life is all right in America, if you’re all white in America” speaks even louder today. So maybe “West Side Story’s” make-over happens, not when the curtain rises, but when you leave the theater and realize that, fifty years and countless bodies later, we are still searching for that new way of living, that way of forgiving. It’s out there, somehow, someday, somewhere.
“West Side Story” runs at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT until July 30. For more information, visit ivorytonplayhouse.org. Photos by Nathan Steele