'West Side Story' To the Small Stage

Livingston Condenses Scope, Cast and Score

Mariah S. Evarts

The cast of “West Side Story” uses a minimalist set to transform the stage of the Cabot Junior Common Room. The show runs until April 29.

Perhaps it is due to the inherent consequences of cutting out much of the dancing for which the musical is so well known, but the Cabot House production of “West Side Story” at times fails to capture the underlying energy, passion, and physicality of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s seminal work. Despite these drawbacks, individual actors are able to stand up in their own right.

Directed and produced by Cabot House’s Assistant to the Masters Susan Livingston, “West Side Story” runs from April 20 to 29 in the Cabot Junior Common Room. Vocal Director Paul Huberdeau and Orchestra Director Aaron Berkowitz, ably navigate the cast through Bernstein’s difficult score.

Written by Arthur Laurent, “West Side Story” updates Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The division between two rival ethnic gangs, the Puerto Rican-based Sharks and the white Jets become muddled when Tony (Samuel C. Brondfield ’08), the former leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria (Rachel C. Porter ’07), the sister of the leader of the Sharks.

Brondfield is an undeniably great singer. However, the emotion behind his words is not always conveyed—when singing “Maria,” there is a large disconnect between the poignant lyrics and Brondfield’s expressionless body. This problem does not persist throughout his performance, and he really connects with the audience during the song “Tonight,” where his voice is also best showcased.

Porter’s delicate soprano voice, which at times requires strain in order to hear it, is highlighted in “Somewhere” and compliments Brondfield’s rich tenor. Since she does not attempt to impersonate a Spanish accent, it detracts from the ethnic conflict premise of the play. Maria’s disconnect from her Spanish linguistic heritage enhances the idea she and Tony may not actually be that different after all.

Dina Gohar ’06, as Anita, delivers the most captivating performance. As often occurs with secondary characters in musicals, Gohar steals the show by employing a believable Puerto Rican accent and not hesitating to express her emotions through body language. Her energetic dance moves and choice to emphatically speak parts instead singing them in a high key are particularly effective.

Although the actors’ confinement to the small stage precluded them from reproducing the highly stylized fighting and elaborate dance scenes, the cast compensated for their lack of dancing expertise with coordinated movement. Dancing aside, the play remains in a permeating sense of lethargy.

Blurring the distinction between the Jets and the Sharks, some actors were double cast as girlfriends in both gangs. Livingston makes and interesting move, cutting out sections of well known songs like “America.”

The best scene of the musical is that featuring the song “Gee Officer Krupke.” Incorporating over-the-top theatrics, it serves a dual role as comic relief in an otherwise serious play and as an opportunity for the cast to truly engage their roles as social outcasts. This number alone entirely compensates for the cast’s lack of energy in preceding scenes.

The orchestra is the highlight of the musical, delivering the familiar tunes and essentially retaining the essence of the original show. Most notably, the violin, soprano saxophone, and percussion supported, and in some cases supplemented, the vocal talents of the cast.

Working with limited space, Cabot House’s rendition was characterized by minimalism. Set designer Gene Ketelhohn brought the West Side to the small stage with a backdrop of New York City tenements, a portable wire fence, and improvised balcony composed of ladders. The lighting (Chris B. Johnson ’07) consisted of a blend of red, yellow, and blue lighting which resulted in an intensely dim, albeit appropriate, setting.

Cabot’s “West Side Story” is an ambitious attempt to reproduce this play, especially in such an unorthodox venue. As a student performance, Cabot House Musical Theatre ensemble should be applauded for adapting the classic for new audiences and exhibiting the talent of students who do not usually participate in Harvard’s theater community.