By Christopher Arnott•Contact Reporter
There's still a place for "West Side Story," the landmark 1957 musical that turns street fighting into modern dance and resets "Romeo and Juliet" as a racially charged story of forbidden love in New York City.
"West Side Story," which closes the Nutmeg Summer Series at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, doesn't harshly dramatize issues of violence and bigotry the way a lot of contemporary theater does. It softens and romanticizes them. The performers here are dancers, not fighters. There's little danger or menace in their fluid movements.
But that didn't stop me from blubbering at the show's end as the final gunshot rang out in a series of tragic events affecting a stage full of likable and vulnerable young people. What "West Side Story" still does well is show life spiraling out of control.
As directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate, Connecticut Repertory Theatre's "West Side Story" is hyperstylized, dance-driven and deeply respectful of the show as it was originally conceived by Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents.
CT Rep is using the standard script, not the one from the recent New York revival where the Puerto Rican characters talked and sang to each other in Spanish. This production keeps the now-quaint concept of having most of the song "Somewhere" sung by someone other than Maria or Tony. The biggest change is still for those who know "West Side Story" only from its famous film version, where the songs "Cool" and "Officer Krupke" are in different places. There are no new concepts here. Just honoring the original is effort enough.
As the lovers around whom the street-gang violence swirls, the lanky, lantern-jawed Luke Hamilton is an amiable, boyish Tony while Julia Estrada is an oddly mature, sensible Maria. Cassidy Stoner as Anita lacks the over-the-top sizzle associated with the role, but all that means is that she fits in smoothly with the rest of a spirited ensemble.
The Jets are a pretty evenhanded ensemble, led by Bentley Black as a creepily charismatic Riff but capable of a killer "Officer Krupke" number without him. The Sharks, by contrast, are completely overshadowed and overwhelmed by the transfixing stage presence of Yurel Echezarreta as Bernardo. When Echezarreta smolders — watching his sister dance with Tony at the school dance, negotiating a rumble, or romancing Anita — nobody can draw attention away from him.
"West Side Story" still packs a punch — and a knife, and a revolver — even when its physical violence seems less dangerous than a mambo.
"WEST SIDE STORY" plays through July 17 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Ave. on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $50. 860-486-2113, crt.uconn.edu.