by Keith Loria
Waveny Park will once again play host to the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s summer theatrical season on a 60×40-foot stage in a modern, state-of-the-art open-air tent, custom-designed for the theater.
STONC’s 13th season features the classic Broadway musical West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, running July 6-31.
“West Side Story is a show that is as pertinent now as when it was written, and increasingly so each year,” said Ed Libonati, executive producer of the Summer Theatre of New Canaan. “It’s a story of love, but also one that deals with immigration, guns, exclusivity … all of the touch points that our culture is going through right now.”
The show, which is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, will be directed by the theater’s artistic director, Melody Meitrott Libonati, and stars Zach Schanne and Julia Paladino as Tony and Maria.
“It’s probably one of the greatest love stories ever to hit Broadway,” Libonati said. “It’s a classic and to have the opportunity to do this was amazing. It’s not always easy to get the rights, and the timing finally worked for us.”
When casting for the show, the theater looked at professional actors from Connecticut and New York City, and while Libonati usually tries to bring back some local favorites, most everyone in this production is new to the company.
“West Side Story is unique to cast because you need people who can sing exceptionally well, who can dance exceptionally well and can act exceptionally well, so you need a cast of triple threats,” Libonati said. “We had about 1,200 people audition and we cast 29 people.”
Schanne won the part of Tony after numerous callbacks, and is excited to be playing what he refers to as a “dream role.”
“It was one of the first musicals I ever saw. In middle school, everyone watched it in class, it was sort of a rite of passage, and I really found it incredible,” he said. “In fact, it sort of prolonged my joining the theater community as it intimidated me. I thought ‘never in my life could I do any of that.’ It really was a catalyst for my appreciation for the grueling, hard work it takes to work in the theater.”
He grew up in southern New Jersey, and this will be his first show in Connecticut, although he did perform in STONC’s gala earlier this year. Schanne started acting when he was 16 and “fell into it” more seriously in college.
“I remember doing a production of She Loves Me and feeling really at home. I think that was the show that propelled me into taking this on as a career,” he said. “It just felt really easy, really simple. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
What he loves about Tony is his eternal optimism, his belief that the world is bigger than just what’s around him.
“I think that’s really rare in the world, for people to not just hope for the best but truly believe that anything is possible,” Schanne said. “It’s people like that who paved the way for civil rights and equality. The strong thing about Tony is that he has a voice, where most characters I’ve played have spent the length of the show trying to figure out what that voice is. I love how complex he is.”
Libonati noted that the chemistry between Schanne and Paladino was apparent from their first meeting at auditions.
“Zach and Julia were electric from the moment they first worked a scene together,” Libonati said. “It’s been magic and we’re very lucky to have them.”
Over the past three years, STONC has done one major musical instead of the traditional two it had done its first 10 years because they find more theater lovers in the community can be better served that way.
“We’re not on the people’s radar most of the year and it takes some time for people to hear about us and the shows each summer, so it takes a few weeks for us to build our audience and then we usually wind up having to turn people away,” Libonati said. “We found that doing just one show the full length of the season worked much better for us.”
Another thing important to Libonati is that the musical appeals to a younger audience, which is one of the reasons he didn’t want 30-somethings playing these roles.
“Last year we did Legally Blonde, and Hairspray the year before, and that attracted a young crowd, and we hope West Side Story will as well,” he said. “When you get into the classics, it sometimes skews older though.”
The theater is also presenting two professional musicals for young audiences with Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and the new musical Cinderella, A Fairy’s Tale.
The former tells the tale of a boy, his insect friends and their amazing journey across the ocean on a giant piece of fruit. The show features puppets custom-designed by noted mask maker Jeff Semmerling, interweaved with actors and shadow puppets. Henry Tate and Luke Ryan take turns playing the part of James.
James and the Giant Peach runs weekends June 25 through July 31.
Cinderella, A Fairy’s Tale, is a new musical adaptation of the classic Cinderella fairy tale written by Melody Meitrott Libonati and composer David Hancock Turner, which stays true to the original but adds a contemporary spin.
“It refuses to settle on simplistic motivations,” Turner said. “Our musical instead asks questions of the story and attempts to answer them with entertaining and amusing answers: Why does the Prince want to get married and what sort of woman is he interested in? What exactly does Cinderella want? What is that tension between our clothes, our appearance and who we ‘really’ are? What is magic?”
The way the show answers these questions is through a familiar journey in an unfamiliar way.
“We had found it difficult to find shows that resonate well with a message that doesn’t talk down to kids, so last year Melody and David decided to throw their hat in the ring and see what they could come up with; this was the result,” Libonati said. “It’s updated, but it’s still the classic story. Cinderella is a little more empowered and she is the one who’s going to help the kingdom.”
The show runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 and Sundays at 4, July 16-31.
West Side Story tickets range from $25-$60 with tables for two from $90 and tables for six $240. Prices for the young audience shows are $22 and tables for six are $120.
Tickets to all shows are available at stonc.org.