The street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, are battling anew in the problematic production of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents classic, West Side Story, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30th. The musical can be utterly captivating, primarily when actress Mia Pinero, who plays the innocent, love struck Maria, is on stage. The actress has a golden, powerful voice that radiates sonorously throughout the historic theater. However, the elevated moments are tempered by a mostly young cast whose exuberance comes across as somewhat headstrong and unruly.
For patrons unfamiliar with the musical, the story parallels Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tony (Stephen Mir) and Maria (Mia Pinero) are the two star-crossed lovers from different worlds and ethnicities. Their deeply felt romance, nonetheless, leads to tragedy even though, ultimately, there is reconciliation between the two gangs.
Book writer Arthur Laurents brings an urgency to the story that can still crackle today. When the show opened in 1957 the raw emotions of the characters, the urban setting, and unforgiving street life were jarring to audiences. The uncompromising race relations between the Puerto Rican youths and their white counterparts were powerful images that, while not as impactful today, sixty years later still resonate loudly.
The score, with music by Leonard Bernstein, who was at the height of his composing skills; and lyrics by an unseasoned Stephen Sondheim, still endures to this day. Every song seems like a timeless classic from the rousing opening “Jet Song” to the lovely, haunting duets of “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” to the comedic “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” I only wish the pit band could have been located somewhere on the staging area, as opposed to underneath, to avoid a slight muffling of the sound.
The cast, a mix of professionals, recent college graduates and current higher education students, is full of vitality and abandon. The fervor most of them bring to the musical energizes the production, but also leads to uneven performances. Stephen Mir, as Tony, has a strong voice and boy-next-door quality, but lacks the commanding presence required by the former leader of the Jets. Conor Robert Fallon’s Riff has the passion necessary for the role of second-in-command of the street gang, but needs a more nuanced approach to the role. Likewise, Victor Borjas’ portrayal of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, could have used more shading to bring out his outrage and contempt. The other male characters, again, have an impassioned zeal, but could have displayed more subtlety and restraint. The two key women, on the other hand, have a confident stage presence that invigorates the production. Mia Pinero’s Maria is sweet, naïve, and bursting with love. She has a stunning voice that make her duets with Stephen Mir one of the main highlights of the show. Natalie Madlon’s Anita is sexy, self-assured, yet vulnerable. She is so well poised on stage that she demands your attention. Hillary Ekwalls shows a cageyness and adroitness in the minor role of Anybodys.
Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood has helmed a production which can soar, yet also swoop. The pacing of the show comes fast and furious, with echoes of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. But the task of harnessing the sometimes unbounded enthusiasm of his actors in group settings proves daunting. He Is more successful in the intimate scenes and the musical’s comedic turns. The dream sequence in Act II, for those not familiar with the storyline, came across as perplexing.
The Set Design by Daniel Nischan, with its hinged scenery opening and closing to create distinct locales, is judicious in its use of space to create minimal, yet different settings. The Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott helps augment the tensions in the show. His use of shadows heightens the drama and ferment of the production.
West Side Story, playing at the Ivoryton Placehouse through July 30th. For tickets go to the Ivoryton website.