West Side Story, Book by Arthur Laurents, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Music by Leonard Bernstein. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
William Ruff, Mia Pinero, Veronica Fiaoni, Jarrett Jay Yoder, Pierre Marais; photo: provided
"Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico's in America."
"Immigrant goes to America. . .," gets in a gang in America, sets it to song in America, gets it all wrong in America. The incessant clamor of "West Side Story" sets my teeth on edge and gets my heart to go pitti-pat. This musical has been in my life since 1956, just like "My Fair Lady" - set in Edwardian London, "The Most Happy Fella - set in 1920s Napa Valley, "Happy Hunting" set in 1950's Monaco and "Bells Are Ringing" set in 1950s Manhattan also. While the other shows come and go, "WSS" stays and stays and stays. Leonard Bernstein's rhythms and tunes never go far from home and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics beckon to be quoted. Images of the original, and the film that followed, stay just inside the eyelids easily summoned when needed. Unlike other musicals this one is insidious; it gets under your skin.
When a tiny young profesional theater mounts a production on a circular stage it isn't expected to alter those earlier images much. Such is the case with the current Mac-Haydn production in Chatham, NY. However some of those memories are now altered forever and I'm not complaining. Unlike other revivals and regional editions of this show, there has been no attempt made to imitate slavishly the direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins. Instead certain visual images are recalled and used, but a whole new spectrum of movement and tableaux has been employed by director/choreographe James Kinney. Clearly he is aware of what was done before, and equally clearly he is more interested in a reinterpretation of those scored visuals. On the postage stamp stage in rural upstate New York, he has created his own West Side of Manhattan, his own score of loser teenagers, Polish-American and Puerto Rican, his own interpretation of authority figures, and his own examples of female personnel.
Kinney keeps the urgency in the play without emphasising it awkwardly. Bernstein's music does that handily enough and Sondheim's lyrics run the gamut from understated to ear-boggling. The cast in Chatham are capable enough to give each word its respect and due and each note, on or off the principal beat of the music, it true value. In particular Jarrett Jay Yoder singing "Something's Coming" handles the difficult chattiness of the structure as though it wasn't even there and he never misses a moment in this mono-song.
Yoder is tall, blond, sturdy, handsome and just a bit delicate in his role-playing. I couldn't help thinking that it was a good thing Maria is a virgin as she won't have to compare his love-making to any other boy's achievements in sexuality. He is not the ideal Tony but his pairing with Mia Pinero provided a wonderful contrast to her earthiness. Together they provide an almost perfectly idea, young, modern Romeo and Juliet. He is assertive where we want him to be and she is pained though loving when she must be both. Pinero has an ethereal soprano voice and dances beautifully. Yoder has a sopranesque tenor and moves with complete grace. They would be almost too beautiful a pair if they weren't the obvious contrast to this show's Anita and Bernardo.
Yoder, Pinero, Ruff, Fiaoni; photo: provided
Veronica Faioni and William Ruff are very down-to-earth types who bring a strong sense of reality to their characters. We can practically inhale the ambient sensuality that accompanies each of them onto the stage. Both are strong dancers and she sings like a dream. They make quite a pair and in being so strong make a heavy statement about staying "with your own kind," one of the mixed messages that Arthur Laurents' script has always touted, in part through Sondheim's lyrics.
Curtis Schroeger is an excellent Riff, head of the Jets street gang. He dances with so much male authority that his dancing becomes more like pure force. Josh Kahn brings a noticeable sweetness to gang member Baby John. His direct opposite is Pierre Marais as Chino, the young Puerto Rican intended for Maria. Emily Franklin and Maggie Randolph are the perfect Graziella and Velma while Libby Bruno is an excellent Rosalia, defending her home island on her immigrant one.
Jayme Wappel plays Anybodys, the tom-boy who desperately seeks approval, and she is terrific, dancing and acting and being the "boy" who isn't one. The four adult figures have been downplayed into near idiot status and I can't even begin to understand why. Hillary Fisher, who plays Consuela, gets to sing the offstage voice in the song "Somewhere" and she is absolutely all things bright and beautiful doing it. She turns a difficult balletic moment in the show into a memorable and moving danced interlude that the show needs so much.
The Mac-Haydn band sounds great this time around, their music filling the space perfectly. The look of the show is fine, costumes and lighting (Heather Lockard and Andrew Gmoser) doing what's needed. James Kinney directs his company, as noted, into crack-filling gaps in the play and molds truth where there is sometimes a cuteness that this show cannot accommodate. Accents are only moderately attempted and without them the show seems to play like a good play should.
Spoiler alert: unhappy ending with an upbeat point of view. Real alert: the show is selling well, so get your tickets while you still can. Flawed, as every production I've ever seen of this show has been, and not quite changing those eye-lid memories of mine, this is a good production of a difficult musical.
West Side Story plays at the Mac-Haydn Theater, 1925 Route 203, Chatham, NY through August 9. For tickets and information call 518-392-9292 or go on line to www.machaydntheatre.org.