NY Times Review: ‘West Side Story’ at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport


Review: ‘West Side Story’ at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport

SEPT. 25, 2015

From the first sinewy notes of Leonard Bernstein’s music and the first hard-edged finger snaps of glowering young men prowling across the stage, it’s clear that the production of “West Side Story” at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is on the right track.

As the musical’s mostly wordless prologue continues, the dancers portraying the Sharks and the Jets, opposing gangs in 1950s Manhattan, execute stylized acrobatics that suggest palpable danger while also staying true to the elegant, balletic choreography. Igor Goldin, the director; Jeffry Denman, the choreographer; and Trey Compton, the assistant director and fight choreographer, have found the balance between a realistic portrayal of violence and an artful depiction of it.
Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original 1957 production (and contributed the idea for the musical), created the template that the Engeman production follows — but not slavishly. The show has been tailored for a more intimate theater and a smaller stage than those that housed either the original or any of its four Broadway revivals. More important, they have resurrected the emotional urgency of a show that may now seem touchingly antiquated with its comic-relief interludes and clean-cut juvenile delinquents.

When it first opened, the musical shocked many critics and audience members. Referring to the gang warfare theme, Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times in 1957 that “very little of the hideousness has been left out.”

The plot, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” is especially affecting here because of the appealing cast. Tony, a Polish-American former member of the Jets, is played by Zach Trimmer, who looks athletic enough to have been a gang leader but has a sweet smile that turns charmingly goofy whenever he thinks about Maria, the young Puerto Rican woman he meets at a dance. Beforehand, anticipating that good things are about to happen, he sings a lyrical “Something’s Coming,” and immediately afterward he delivers a haunting “Maria” filled with delicate tenderness. (The memorable lyrics of all of the songs are by Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents wrote the musical’s book. Along with Bernstein, they form a starry triumvirate.)
As Maria, Samantha Williams looks and moves like the teenager she is supposed to be and speaks in a girlish voice. It’s a surprise to hear her singing voice, rich and operatic, bringing mature nuances to the wistful songs she shares with Mr. Trimmer’s Tony, including “Tonight” and “Somewhere.” She holds her own in a face-off with Karli Dinardo, who gives a strong performance as Anita, the girlfriend of Maria’s brother Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. After a rumble that results in two deaths, Anita sings an angry “A Boy Like That,” warning Maria to stay away from Tony, while Maria counters with a plaintive “I Have a Love.” The duet could turn maudlin but here remains taut and heartbreaking.

Sam Wolf, who plays Riff, leader of the Jets, is another standout. An impressive dancer, he is one of the few gang members who looks tough. (Others just dance tough.) Ashley Pérez Flanagan takes a shining turn in the comic song “America” as the lone holdout among the Puerto Rican girls who prefers her previous home to New York. The boys’ equivalent is “Gee, Officer Krupke,” in which Scott Shedenhelm steps up as the lead satirizer of the police officer who hounds the gangs.
The orchestra, under the direction of James Olmstead, provides lush support, and the set, stylishly designed by D T Willis, combines abstract elements with realistic ones in ways that reflect the balance between artifice and realism in the choreography. (It’s a shame that it appears to be made of cardboard or ultra-thin plywood.) It includes a real chain-link fence that the skilled dancers have no trouble climbing over — not even Melissa Hunt as Anybodys, a girl who wants to join the Jets. The costumes by Tristan Raines are mostly true to the 1950s, though the pristine matching tennis shoes worn by five of the Jets are a little disconcerting.

The scuff-free footwear, however, doesn’t stop the Jets actors or the rest of the cast from expressing their characters’ frustrations and desires through passionate dance.
“West Side Story” continues through Nov. 8 at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main Street. More information: 631-261-2900 or engemantheater.com.

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