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THEATER REVIEW: Tension, romance, talent drive this ‘West Side Story’


‘West Side Story’ / Mac-Haydn Theater

IN THE MID-FIFTIES, three theatrical geniuses came together to create a nearly perfect musical–no matter what the creators have since said about it. Leonard Bernstein brought his “serious music” chops, his grasp of American jazz and pop idioms, and his powerfully emotional nature. A young Stephen Sondheim brought sky-high verbal skills, an instinct for the pared-down ballad lyric and an impeccable ear for color, humor and super-clever word play. Jerome Robbins brought the perfect synthesis of balletic and jazz movement along with an astonishing instinct for the structure of a drama. Nothing as good in the field has been created before or since, although “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy” come close. Most musicals seem trivial by comparison. Most modern operas lumber along below “West Side Story.”

You know what it’s about: “Them-and-us.” Urban gangs. Racism. Romeo-and-Juliet romantic love.

Jarret Yoder (as Tony) and Mia Pinero (as Maria) star in the Mac-Haydn Theater production of "West Side Story." The show runs through August 9. Photo contributed
Jarret Yoder (as Tony) and Mia Pinero (as Maria) star in the Mac-Haydn Theater production of “West Side Story.” The show runs through August 9. Photo contributed

Casting of this thing is always difficult. It was less than ideal even in the original Broadway production and in the Broadway revivals. What chance does a summer stock company have to find teenage types with top-skill voices, who are also top-skill dancers and actors? Mac-Haydn does quite well in the voice department. Mia Pinero as Maria has a lovely sound and an enviable, long vocal line. Jarrett Jay Yoder has a rangy, bright tenor capable of melting into an expressive heady mix. Both are convincing in the lead roles.

In the original, Robbins, of course, got his top dancers. In Mac-Haydn casting, only Ronnie S. Bowman Jr. as Bernardo and Jayme Wappel as Anybodys could pass a Robbins dance audition. (To see them dance together in Act II is a special delight.) Bowman’s electric physical life is the engine of his gang leadership, and Wappel’s pretty face and underlying femininity are a big plus for a wannabe-male gang-crasher.

The opening dance is thrilling, however. (Director-choreographer: James Kinney.) All re-creators of “West Side Story” borrow as many Robbins’ moves and patterns as possible, and this one is no exception. In-the-round brings special problems, but the style and intent are there.

In the acting department, Veronica Fiaoni as Anita shines. Her Anita is tough but feminine, sexy and strong. In Act II, she and Pinero sing an unusually beautiful and moving rendition of “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.”

Not all the singing is that good. The men in Act I have too many pitch problems. (It’s cleanup time.)

It is surprising and welcome that the small Mac-Haydn orchestra captures so much of the impact of the original orchestrations. (Music director: Josh D. Smith.) The best parts of synthesizer sounds are in use and the acoustical violin, flute, trumpet and percussion are effective. Sometimes the amplification is overly enthusiastic.

In supporting roles, Pierre Marais is heart-wrenching as Chino; Curtis Schroeger is an attractive, effective Riff; Alan Angelo as Doc makes the character’s anguish and frustration palpable; and Tom Hagan as Shrank is an imposing, and appropriately loathsome cop.

Don’t miss a chance to see “West Side Story” at Mac-Haydn. Little can compete with the show’s compelling them vs. us theme and its gifts to the audience of laughter, goose bumps, tears and awe. It runs through Sunday, August 9.



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