In Thingamajig Theatre’s smart, high-energy production of “West Side Story,” the Sharks and the Jets threaten, scheme and finally engage in open warfare. In their turf battle over a crumbling New York City neighborhood, every brick, trash can and stoop matters. So does the forbidden romance between Tony (lyric baritone Nick Drivas) and Maria (soprano Zulfina Asquino).
Broadway in the Mountains at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts is in its eighth summer of repertory productions. Co-founders Tim and Laura Moore continue to craft and polish their dream. They’ve assembled a creative team of directors, designers and young, talented musical theater performers from all over the country. A few Equity Actors enhance the overall professionalism. How else could a tight, intense production of an American classic clock in at a little over two hours?
The much-anticipated, fully-staged presentation of “West Side Story” is a perfect way to celebrate the Leonard Bernstein centennial. America’s most famous composer was born on Aug. 25, 1918, and Thingamajig has wisely scheduled a celebratory matinee that day.
Directed by New York-based Melissa Firlit and choreographed by the brilliant Pia Wyatt, the production underscores the idea that the Broadway “Romeo and Juliet” is fundamentally a dance show. Wyatt seamlessly merges combat choreography, so essential to the dynamics of gangland warfare, with rhumbas, mambos and an elegant lover’s waltz.
“We’re presenting the show on a thrust stage,” Wyatt said during intermission last week. “With the audience on two sides, you can’t have the actors stop and sing. They have to keep moving.”
Wyatt is a professor of Theatre and Dance at Northern State University in Louisiana. For years, she said, her students and graduates have auditioned for and won spots in the Pagosa company. Last winter, Tim Moore called and asked if she’d like to join Thingamajig and choreograph “West Side Story.”
Firlit sets a high energy level from the beginning and generally sustains it throughout. The quiet love scenes between Tony and Maria have a contrasting lyrical tone. But they are still lightly fluid and forward-moving.
Firlit has reimagined a few classic scenes to drive home themes of immigrant frustration and rage. Her treatment of “Somewhere,” Bernstein’s famous song of hope, is fresh and unexpected. It’s echoed at the end in a stormy finale that ends tellingly. No more will be said here; you have to experience it yourself.
Two Equity Actors, Dan Morrison (Riff) and Aaron Catano (Bernardo), lead the Jets and Sharks and are relentless in competition for neighborhood supremacy. Katie Whittemore’s smart Anita plays wise mentor as well as bereaved sister, especially in an astonishing confrontation scene with the Jets. Credit Firlit for intensifying the stakes in the #MeToo age.
Thingamajig Theatre has crafted a “West Side Story” for our moment in time.
Pagosa is a one-hour drive from Durango, and there’s plenty of free parking.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.