Review: 'West Side Story' at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

Storrs, CT - Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the University of Connecticut presents their Nutmeg Summer Series at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the campus in Storrs. The 2106 series began in June with ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying!’ and “Peter and the Starcatcher.’ One of my favorite musicals, ‘West Side Story’ with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is the final production in the series and it runs through July 17. 

CRT is the professional producing arm of the Department of Dramatic Arts at UCONN, Storrs and their productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, including Equity actors, faculty members, and the department’s most advanced student artists. The university proclaims in their press releases that the synergy between professional and advanced student artists creates extraordinary theatre and a unique learning environment. 

So my expectations were incredibly high as I made the ninety-minute trek to Storrs. My first visit to the massive campus was during a time of major construction projects, but I still managed to find the commuter parking lot positioned relatively close to the theatre. The theatre itself is an older building that is well-maintained and the smallish stage fits nicely the approximately 350-seat house.  In the same building there was a wonderful fashion exhibit featuring women’s clothes from the 1980s entitled ‘The Eccentric The Evolution of the Eighties.’

Cassie Abate, who staged last summer’s ‘Peter Pan,’ directed this mix of professional actors and upcoming students (with only a few from UCONN) for this iconic story of Romeo and Juliet transported to New York City and entwined in rival street gangs. The music is soaring, the tension is high and the story is timely. In fact, I took a photo of a rock painted with a rainbow and a message for Orlando that I noticed on my walk to the box office. 

 Cassidy Stoner (Anita) and Yurel Echezarreta (Bernardo) in WEST SIDE STORY onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre July 7-17, 2016.  Info at  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Cassidy Stoner (Anita) and Yurel Echezarreta (Bernardo) in WEST SIDE STORY onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre July 7-17, 2016.  Info at  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

The production fit well on this intimate stage and the musical fit snugly within two hours, so I suspect that some trimming was done. The show started strong with the iconic prologue; the dancing was great even though it felt shorter in length than usual. On the flip side, I have never seen a stronger staging of “Cool;” the choreography by the director was excellent overall. Music Director NDavid Williams ensures that the band of a dozen musicians sounded fantastic; some of the numbers seemed more lyrical than usual with beautiful violin strains that I appreciated. Thomas McDonough served as conductor/pianist. 

I do have high expectations when it comes to this show, and this cast gave good performances with a few actors going to the next level. The Jets girls included the talents of Olivia Benson, Alyssa Sarnoff and Caroline Iliff, and the Sharks girls were Tori Gresham, Susie Carroll, Ms. Iliff, Janayla Montes and Rebekah Morgan Berger. All of these young ladies danced extremely well.

The adults were played by Equity actors Nick Lawson as Officer Krupke and John Bixler as Schrank and a hysterical Principal Gladhand. The best of the all was Dale AJ Rose as an ethnic Doc, the owner of the teen-aged hangout. His accent was spot on and his acting superb; I was not surprised to read that Mr. Rose is the Director of Performance Training at UCONN.

The Jets boys were played by Ty Taylor, Aaron Bennett Miller, Dalton Bertolone, Ross Thompson, Jacob Burns, Liam Johnson and Adria Swan as Anybody’s. 

Bentley Black did a really great job in the role of Riff and Luke Hamilton played an earnest Tony, although some of his notes seemed off on opening night. 

On the opposing team of the Sharks were Gabriel Bernal, Brian Binion, Jose Luaces, Gerald Caesar, and TJ Newton as Chino. I liked Cassidy Stoner in her CRT debut in the role of the strong Anita and Yurel Echezarreta was a dark, handsome and menacing Bernardo. Julia Estrada used her perfect soprano to nail every one of her solos, although her Spanish accent could have been more consistent. 

The tech aspects of the show were top notch. The urban scenery was designed by Tim Brown and it was nicely lit by Michael Chybowski. Costume Designer Christina Lorraine Bullard provided colorful period costumes for most of the scenes, with more muted tones for the ballet. 

CRT Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal did an outstanding job in his curtain speech of making all of the audience members feel welcomed and appreciated. The opening night audience cheered throughout and were on their feet for curtain call. An opening night reception was held following the performance where patrons were able to mingle with the cast and crew. ‘West Side Story’ runs in Storrs through next Sunday.