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 crt.uconn.edu.  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 crt.uconn.edu.  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. 

Review: 'West Side Story' at Interlakes Theatre

Angelica Potter

West Side Story is a tragic love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Taking place in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City in the 1950’s, this musical gives us two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, whose rivalry focuses around their ethnic backgrounds. When a young couple falls in love and tries to break down the walls of hatred between the opposing gangs tragedy strikes multiple times.  It is then that the fists slowly come down as they realize what they’ve become and what their actions have caused. 

Interlakes Theatre proudly brings this classic to the stage under the direction and choreography of Brian Feehan. The large cast showed off their dancing chops during the many dance breaks. The gentlemen appeared to lack confidence in their steps at times especially during the “Prologue” which made for a shaky start to the opening night performance. However, things improved when the ladies kicked the dancing up a notch during “The Dance at the Gym” and “America”. 

Nonetheless, this show was carried by its leads Tony (Justin Luciano), Maria (Julia Suriano), Bernardo (Taylor Warren) and Anita (Cassidy Stoner). Luciano’s voice and connection with Suriano were wonderful and the two of them made the audience wish for a happy ending. Warren was dashingly authoritative as Bernardo and the dancing between him and Stoner during “The Dance at the Gym” was fierce (in the best way). Stoner brought strength, sass and of course incredible dancing to her portrayal of Anita.

As with most opening nights, this performance had its share of glitches. The most noticeable issue was the sound, or in some cases, the lack there of: from the mics being turned “on” backstage before the show to mics dying while leads were singing;  to the orchestra being louder than the singers even when their mics worked properly. It is my hope that it all gets sorted out and soon, because it was a shame to barely hear half the songs in the show and listening to the audience around me, many felt the same way. 

Photo Credit: Dr. Robert Kozlow (Interlakes Theatre) 

Photo Credit: Dr. Robert Kozlow (Interlakes Theatre) 

Thankfully, the shining light of this production (who I could always hear) is the incomparable Julia Suriano who, as mentioned earlier, portrays Maria. From the moment she came on stage she was delightful to watch and when she started singing her well trained, Soprano voice was chillingly beautiful. Her performance of “I feel pretty” put a smile on the face of everyone in the audience. The strength and emotion she brought to “A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love” was perfection. And not long after that, we watched with tear filled eyes, her devastating heartbreak in the “Finale” as she reprimanded both gangs for what their hatred had destroyed. Julia Suriano’s portrayal of Maria is not to be missed as she is hands down one of the best vocalists Interlakes Theatre has ever had.   

West Side Story plays until July 12th, 2015 at Interlakes Theatre in Meredith, NH. Tickets and additional information can be found at www.interlakestheatre.com 

For more of my reviews and theatrical thoughts check out: http://intheatresome1isalwayswatching.blogspot.co

Westchester Broadway Theatre's 'West Side Story'

Nancy Sasso Janis

Westchester Broadway Theatre has been trying to bring 'West Side Story' back to their stage since its last production in 1998. The musical that was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it has been called "possibly the greatest musical ever created" by Jerome Robbins with amazing music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a 27 year old Stephen Sondheim. I never get tired of watching the 1961 film version of this tale of two star-crossed lovers from different worlds in order to enjoy the outstanding choreography and musical score. The WBT production was the first time I have seen a non-student version of the show and I was immediately wrapped up in the total experience that makes 'West Side Story' a treasure of the musical theatre genre.

Carly Evans & Zach Trimmer as Maria & Tony in 'West Side Story' at WBT Photo By John Vecchiolla
 
Did you know that Robbins original premise for the show in 1950 involved a young, Italian, Catholic boy whose gang was embroiled in a fierce rivalry with a group of Jewish kids and was to be called "East Side Story?" I did not. Five years later when the project was reactivated, the decision was made to move the action to the upper west side neighborhood of San Juan Hill and the Jewish gang became Puerto Rican "Sharks" versus the Polish-American "Jets."
 
Director/choreographer Barry McNabb writes "It is the musical where story-telling and dance are the most integrated ever and that physical manifestation makes for a very visceral audience experience." The theme is dark with the focus on social problems and the ending is heart wrenching, but I would agree that the extended dance scenes set to the glorious music ("One Hand, One Heart," "America," and "Tonight" for sure) make it all worthwhile.
 
This production is up the usual WBT standards with beautiful costumes by Derek Lockwood and his assistant Roberto Silva and wig/hair designed by Gerald Kelly. The company danced the "Somewhere Ballet" in all white and it was all quite beautiful. The fine set by Steven Loftus employed a thin elevator along the front of the stage that was used well. The cast performed the excellent choreography based on the style of the period and Robbin's signature steps. Lighting designed by Andrew Gmoser was stunning and especially effective for the rumble. The chef added to the evening's menu pernil, arroz con gandules y tostones and a yummy roasted turkey breast.
 
The ensemble was strong in every way, although a few looked a little mature to be gang members. Mike Boland was both Doc and Officer Krupke and Ed Romanoff played both Schrank and a great Glad Hand. Xavier Reyes was young Chino and Brandon Contreras played a commanding Bernardo. Maggie McGrath was the frenetic Anybody's and Adam Soniak gave a strong performance as Riff.
 
Zach Trimmer gave a heartfelt performance and sang very well as Tony. Allison Thomas Lee brought strong acting to the role of Anita. As the lovely Maria, Carly Evans was sublime. This young actress played the role at Ogunquit Playhouse last fall and her singing voice was flawless. I will always remember her performance of this iconic character.
 
'West Side Story' runs at the WBT, celebrating 40 years of Broadway Musicals and fine dining, through July 5, 2015.