Saturday, March 7, 2020

Review of "West Side Story"

If you cannot wait for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the film version of West Side Story this fall, you can head to the Broadway Theater for the revisionist, highly unsatisfying stage show directed by Ivo Van Hove.  For what seems like a majority of the 100-minute, intermission-less production, audience members are viewing what is happening via real-time projections streaming onto the back of the stage.  By being forced to watch the two-dimensional action, the intimacy and dramatic engagement between the characters and audience is largely missing.  The two primary settings, where the projections are incorporated, are Doc’s store and the dress shop where Maria and Anita work.  They are tucked in the very back of the stage making them virtually unviewable unless via the projection.  Designed by Jan Versweyveld, these are superb recreations of an “In the Heights” bodega and a cramped, manufacturing sweat shop. The attention to detail is truly exceptional. 

For individuals not familiar with the plot of West Side Story, it is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet written by librettist Arthur Laurents.  Unlike most revivals of the musical that hark back to the late 1950’s, this rendering of the show takes place in the present.  The multi-racial cast, most adorned with extensive tattoos, is divided into two street gangs—the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and Jets (more White)--that battle for control of their changing neighborhood.  Complicating the rivalry is the star-crossed love affair of Tony, the former leader of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.   In the end, their ill-fated romance leads to anguish and grief.

The score for West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the most iconic in Broadway musical history.  To name just a few of the well-known numbers - "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Tonight", "America", and "Somewhere."  The song “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet sequence have been excised from the production, supposedly to save time since there is no intermission.  The score is full of energy, with songs full of hope, and desires.  The lone comedic number, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” is now effectively delivered with a note of cynicism and despair.

With many of the songs and production numbers, there is a ceaseless barrage of projections which made it hard to focus on the conflicts and encounters on stage.  For example, with the raucous “Dance at the Gym” sequence the streaming video was extremely distracting and diverted from enjoying Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s rambunctious, sexually charged choreography.  During the aftermath of “The Rumble,” both gangs are spread across the naked stage, slowly recovering from their wounds and realizing the deadly ramifications of what just transpired.  It is a solemn moment when, suddenly, the screen lights up with an aerial view of the setting, robbing the moment of its power and intensity.

Director Ivo Van Hove has come up with some interesting concepts for this production.  The latter half of the musical is set during a constant rain, which amplifies the bleakness and despair of all involved.  Cell phone videos are playfully employed, primarily, during the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number.

The acting troupe, while effortlessly portraying their respective roles, is hampered by the two-dimensionality of their characters playing just overhead.  It was difficult becoming enmeshed with the actors and actresses and feeling 100% connected to them. 

Isaac Powell’s Tony, intoxicated with his love for Maria, could be seen as overplaying the part, but his boyishness and euphoria come across as real and heartfelt.  The same could be said for Shereen Pimentel’s Maria who, also shot with cupid’s arrow, is exhilarated and rapturous in her newfound, yet forbidden, love.  Besides a withering sneer and absolute repudiation for members of the Jets, Amar Ramasar, does not show much range or nuance as Bernardo.  Dharon E. Jones as Riff and Yesenia Ayala as Anita provide assured, compelling performances.

West Side Story, an ineffectually conceived revival, at the Broadway Theatre.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Review of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time"

Creativity is center stage in the worthy production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, playing at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through March 8th.  Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the show cleverly and imaginatively delves into the world of a 15-year old boy on the autism spectrum.

The story focuses on Christopher, a young lad with Aspergers, who lives with his father in Swindon, a small town in England.  As the play begins, Christopher discovers someone has killed his neighbor’s dog and, against his father’s orders, begins to investigate.  This child-like objective quickly tests his personal boundaries and fears as he begins a journey of self-discovery that reveals household secrets and lays bare family dynamics.

Playwright Simon Stephens has brilliantly adapted author Mark Haddon’s book to reflect the emotional awareness and day-to-day life of a teen on the autism spectrum.  Christopher is very smart, but the world outside his special needs school and home are a foreboding place full of obstacles and challenges.  What makes the play even more engrossing is how realistically parents of a boy with autism are portrayed, from the demands they face to the commitment they have for their child.

Audience members acquainted with individuals like Christopher will give knowing nods throughout the show.  For some individuals, the play can be hard to watch.  As a parent with a severely developmentally disabled son, I have shed a number of tears watching the drama.

For a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to be successful, the three main characters need to deliver precision, heartfelt portrayals.  Tyler Nowakowski, a 3rd year BFA student at the University of Connecticut is very good in the demanding role of Christopher.  He deftly embodies a teenage boy with Asperger’s.  His mannerisms—both overt and more subtle—are on target.  The actor shows the many facets a teenager on the spectrum faces each day of his life.

Joe Cassidy, who plays Christopher’s father Ed, gives a rewarding performance full of mixed emotions.  There is anguish, distress, but also the deep love he feels for his son.  You sense his inner turmoil and come to understand the sacrifices he has made.  Margot White’s portrayal of Judy, the boy’s mother, is heart rendering.  The actress gives a realistic performance of a mother in distress who wants balance in her life, but cannot cope with the ups and downs she is presented.  Thalia Eddy, a sophomore BFA student at the University, is caring, soft-spoken, but firm as Christopher’s teacher Siobhan.  She is a steady force in the lad’s life.  Her understanding and compassion are thoroughly convincing.  Maybe she should change her major to special education?

Director Kristin Wold utilizes the ensemble throughout the production, sometimes overusing them in scenes, which can prove distracting from the main focus of the play.  She is most effective with the more intimate scenes between Christopher and his father and mother.  Here, the story can speak for itself.

Set Designer Dennis Akpinar relies on a minimal design, relying on building blocks that are assembled for a variety of settings and functions.  Projections Designer Taylor Edelle Stuart builds in numerous backdrops whose images can broaden our perspective of Christopher’s inner world.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a captivating and emotional-charged show, playing at the CT Repertory Theatre through March 8th.  Information and tickets are at:

NOTE - In the show, Christopher exhibits traits which are not fully explained. Why does he not want to be touched? What is the significance of his model train-building obsession? Why does he need to always tell the truth and be so literal?  I asked my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with Aspergers, who has co-authored three books on the subject and presents on the topic at colleges and universities across the country, to help me write a column that would provide playgoers background information on general Asperger’s characteristics (Click here). Our goal is to help enrich the theatrical experience of those attending a performance of this production by exploring some of the behaviors in the show at a more rudimentary level.