REVIEW: ‘West Side Story’ at the Mac-Haydn Theatre

By this point in human history the whole star-crossed-lovers thing can get kind of old. Yet the very reasons that make it so trite are those that make it so timelessly true. Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim knew this when re-telling the classic Romeo and Juliet story. Set in the Bronx of the 1950’s it tells the tragic tale of Tony and Maria, who find themselves in love amid a world that only wants to keep them apart. As cultures clash, and society struggles to deal with the quickly-changing face of New York, rival gangs circle in a battle to the death.

While remaining faithful to the original is often frowned-upon in these days of revival fatigue, there’s something profoundly smart in holding onto the very essence of what makes a show good, and in this case giving the audience what they want. That’s going on now at the Mac-Haydn Theatre. (It’s reportedly the most requested musical that the Mac-Haydn produced this year, and is set to run for three weeks accordingly.)

This production hits the stage running, literally. Full-throttle, thrillingly-choreographed action opens the evening – an indication that the most powerful portions of the evening will be told through music and dance. As expertly directed by James Kinney (who keeps the inventive work of Jerome Robbins alive and kicking), movement plays as integral a role to the proceedings as music, though Bernstein’s genius may beg to differ. Moving, majestic and overtly romantic passages of balletic beauty are balanced and punctuated by jarring punches of dissonant chords and foot-stomping fights.

The heart of the show belongs, for better or worse, to the leads – and many a ‘West Side Story’ has skidded off the tracks based on the castings of Tony or Maria. Luckily, Jarrett Jay Yoder and Mia Pinero are more than equipped at conveying the emotional core of their doomed love affair. Yoder’s voice is a veritable force-of-nature, and he’s at his most impressive when belting out emotion in a song, subtly drawing forth the raw ache of the heart in an arresting falsetto. Pinero matches his talent in delicacy and gorgeousness, and her transformation from winsome innocent to world-weary almost-widow is the evening’s most delicious, and rewarding, surprise.

The rest of the cast is far more than supporting, particularly the fiery performances of Veronica Fiaoni as Anita (absolutely stealing every scene she’s in) and the impassioned rendering by William Raff, bringing a palpable intensity to his Bernardo. In fact, it’s the intricate ensemble work and the way the cast works as a whole that fuels this ‘Story’ and sets it soaring. Witness the ‘Tonight’ Quintet – widely considered to be one of the greatest scenes in musical theater history.  It’s a highlight of this production, with Kinney making the most of the Mac-Haydn’s in-the-round stage construction as a prelude to the Act I finale.

‘West Side Story’ is a reminder that love is never wasted, love is never lost, even if it’s just for a night. When two people come together like that, it’s not something that circumstance or cultural differences can ever truly kill. You may stop a heart from beating, but you can’t stop it from loving. Love will always endure.

{“West Side Story” runs until August 9, 2015. Call 518-392-9292 for information and reservations, or order on-line at at any time. Featured photos by the Mac-Haydn staff.}

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