A Perfect Form of Entertainment: Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s ‘West Side Story’

As my mom and I arrived at Waveny Park for the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of West Side Story, the rain clouds had just cleared, giving volunteers enough time to re-hang the banner and dry seats for the show. It was the first of three Thursday night “Ladies Nights Out”—featuring door prizes and restaurant specials—and the tent was soon packed to the brim.

Arriving just before 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show, we sat on the grass above the tent, picnicked with a dinner from Walter Stewart’s and watched the actors rehearse a few numbers, including the Mambo scene and the Jet song. Despite the 90 degree heat, the young professionals’ energy levels were high—and remained this high for the rest of the show. It was clear from the interactions between the cast and just a few minutes of rehearsal that they would give this performance their all and that they were having a tremendous amount of fun acting together.

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The plot of West Side Story, two lovers from enemy backgrounds fighting for a way to be together, is not what makes the evening at Waveny so enticing. It is the actors themselves—especially the chemistry between ever-expressive Julia Paladino as Maria and Zach Schanne as Tony—and the unique experience of sitting outside to watch professional actors so clearly doing what they enjoy.

Though West Side Story does not leave the audience with a classic happy ending, it addresses topics that are as real today as they were in the mid-1960’s, such as gang violence, racial tension and gun violence. The thread that connects Maria and Tony’s dream-like love with their painful realities is the show’s music.

Under the direction of Melody Meitrott Libonati, who doubled as artistic director, the Summer Theatre’s unique twist on “Someday”—which seemed to portray the cast all together in heaven—showcased the actors’ talents as both dancers and singers. With the music lowered and the lights dimmed, the cast harmonized and danced ballet. Rather than leaving the show feeling only dejected about the death of Tony, I left with a sense of hope—and humming “Someday” (all music from the show is from Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim).

David Hancock Turner oversaw musical direction for the production, while Doug Shankman choreographed.

The show is not just tragic—it is balanced between tragedy and the hilarity of rebellious teenagers. My personal favorites, the high energy gym dance scene and “Officer Krupke” number—in which the teens poke fun at their local police officer for viewing them as degenerates—evoked quite a long applause from the “Ladies Night” audience.

The Summer Theatre’s production of West Side Story is about both the show and the experience—the young, energetic professional cast, live music and the beautiful sunset happening just behind the tent. Appealing to people of all ages, the theatre even goes so far as to sell old-fashioned glass Coke bottles and vintage sheet music.

It’s the perfect form of entertainment—to enjoy a warm summer night, a classic show with renowned songs and a young talented group of actors working together.

West Side Story” runs Thursday through Sunday, through July 31 (eight shows remain). Tickets range from $55 to $300, where available.

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