Ivoryton Presents Quirky, Seedy 'West Side Story'

There's a place for this. The umpteenth Connecticut summer theater "West Side Story," this one at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30, doesn't behave like a lot of other productions you may have seen of this ubiquitous urban rewrite of "Romeo & Juliet."

The stage area is small, and so are the gangs. As written, "West Side Story" can handle as many as 11 named members in each of the Jets and Sharks street gangs (or an even dozen Jets if you consider lovestruck Tony to still belong). Ivoryton has the bare minimum five Sharks and five Jets (six with Tony).

The number of girlfriends and hangers-on is similarly reduced. Since some of the characters die before intermission (spoiler alert — the musical's based on a Shakespeare tragedy), that makes for a fairly sparse second act.

The cast seems a touch older than the college crowd that usually populates this '50s musical about reckless youth. Costume designer Elizabeth Cipollina's penchant for clean, pressed, very white button-down shirts makes the young men look still older.

The orchestra, hidden in a different part of the building and (thankfully, I'd say), not crowded at the front or side of the stage, comes through reverberant and jumpy — the percussion and horns overwhelm the strings, giving Leonard Bernstein's score a nearly rock 'n' roll feel.

The actors come in all sizes and shapes. So do their voices. Mia Pinero as Maria (a role she spent last summer playing as well, at the Broadway Rose Theatre in Oregon) unleashes a soaring classical-pop soprano, while Stephen Mir as Tony sounds earthier.

Scenic designer Daniel Nischan offers flat, unadorned city-wall backdrops — drab and gray, without any graffiti to enliven them.

Director/choreographer Todd L. Underwood's dances — while paying homage to the original 1957 "West Side Story" director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, as all productions must — are angry and angular. The performers stomp and snap their fingers and jut out their elbows like they want each other to just get out of their way.

The dance in the gym with Tony (loyal to his pals in the Jets) and Maria (sister of the leader of the Sharks) has some real menace here — it's a hotbed of hormonal overdrive. The rumble that ends the first act has the same akilter dangerous edge, only with knives.

These fascinating quirks all add up to a style that is less like 1950s musical theater and more like seedy, cheesy 1950s juvenile delinquent movies such as "High School Hellcats," "Cool and the Crazy" or "Teenage Crime Wave." The effect is shadowy, cheap and strangely thrilling.

"WEST SIDE STORY" continues through July 30 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $50, $45 seniors and $22 students. 860-767-7318, ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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