'West Side Story' has eerily familiar appearance in today's shattered world

HURON — In The Huron Playhouse’s tender, tough and heartbreakingly timely production of the timeless “West Side Story,” there are moments onto which we want to grasp so hard that, if the instances were hands, they’d crunch and go limp.
Those moments include scenes during which the delicate, dreamy young couple Tony and Maria touch each other so gently, you’d think they’re as breakable as the “Glass Menagerie” of animals in the Tennessee Williams play of that title. As embodied by Benjamin Frankart and Jennifer Barnaba, the couple sing to each other quietly and lovingly under soft lighting and a pink, dream-like backdrop.
In such scenes, the cracked brick wall sporting graffiti, part of Dominic DeRiso’s telling set design, is barely visible.
It’s that wall that, sadly, reminds us that in today’s world — broken like that crumbled wall — hate’s lurking.
“West Side Story,” the 1957 Broadway musical, takes Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and transports it to late 1950s New York City.
But in the Huron Playhouse’s commendable production, director Lisa Wiley doesn’t set it during any particular time period. The characters, however, may as well speak on cell phones in present day Manhattan with all the bad happening today.
These young actors speak their lines convincingly and boast beautiful voices, particularly Frankart and Barnaba, who not only hit the real high notes, but do so in key and sustain them with the help of a capable live orchestra.
The cast treats the diverse score, considered one of the best ever written for the American musical theater, with sensitivity and nicely conveys the varied emotions behind some of musical theater’s most powerful lyrics.
There are shortcomings: The song “Cool” is sung too loudly and energetically, instead of softly and calmly. And it still puzzles me why anyone other than Maria and Tony would sing the song “Somewhere,” in which they suggest there’s a special place for them where they won’t be bothered. In a Broadway production I saw, a boy sang it. And at one point, the leaders of the Jets and Sharks shake hands like gentlemen, not gang leaders. In another scene, one of the Sharks refuses to shake, saying that’s not his way.
Dance is a vital aspect of “West Side Story;” Movement defines character as much as what’s said or sang.
Some of choreographer Pamela Shirtz’s movement seems too delicate to establish the necessary tension between the Sharks and Jets.
Other movements are more appropriate, such as slapping laps, snapping fingers, leg kicks and actors jumping over each other. Meanwhile, a deftly executed sequence between Maria and Tony communicates a touching inseparability; he lifts her, hugs her and spins her around.
Mostly, director Wiley skillfully create scenes of tension, tenderness, danger, playful moments and nightmarish in quality (also credit lighting designer Tori Mays and fight choreographer John Evenden.)
Costume designer Erin Farste’s clothes define character and separate by class the Jets and the Sharks, particularly the guys.
The petite Barnaba, with her charming, optimistic smile and sweet voice, is like a soaring little bird who not only feels “pretty” but acts happy.
Frankart’s Tony has a dreamy quality, a sincerity and determination. His Tony contrasts nicely with the bad-boy, confident and proud persona imparted by David Baker as Riff, the Jets leader. He’s more intense than Sharks’ leader Bernardo, played by Ian Roberto Turnwald, who could benefit from a bit more fierceness.
Similarly, the delicacy Barnaba imbues in Maria serves as a nice counterpoint to Sarah Mullen’s street-smart, sarcastic, sexy, bad-girl persona as Anita, Maria’s sister.
One somber moment, in particular, sticks in your head.
It comes at the end of the first act.
The still bodies of Riff and Bernardo are dead.
A bell tolls.
The lights slowly fade, not all at once.
We’re forced to think about the consequences of our actions.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him via email at akrause@norwalkreflector.com