From its first piercing Leonard Bernstein note and electric Jerome Robbins step, Barrington Stage’s marvelous production of “West Side Story” grabs the gut and doesn’t let go for one of the most rapturous, thrilling evenings of musical theatre to grace not only a Berkshire stage but just about any venue anywhere. Many theatre companies aspire to recreate faithfully AND freshly great American musicals but few achieve the drama and vitality that’s on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, which is in the realm of - and often surpasses - its first-class productions of “Pirates of Penzance” and “On the Town” of seasons past.
The keys to director Julie Boyd’s success are exemplary casting top to bottom and stunning choreography by Robert La Fosse, Jerome Robbin dancer and protégé, who reproduces Robbin’s original, groundbreaking dance. Boyd with La Fosse spent almost three months casting the play. The full cast of 27 with the exception of three adult roles is two dozen of the most youthful, attractive and talented “kids” one could assemble. Each can sing AND dance AND act, a trifecta not easily realized. Each player, even of ensemble - with shoulder shrug here, grimace there - convey different personalities.
Doomed lovers Tony and Maria, who drive the retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in gang wars in Manhattan’s West Side in 1957, are splendid. Addie Morales, really Latina, is astonishing (more about her later) perfectly paired with Will Branner, totally “all-American”. Whether in solo, “Maria” and “Something’s Coming”, or duet, “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”, Branner’s sparkling tenor makes each Bernstein classic seem fresh and new. Sharks vs. Jets couldn’t be better dramatized: a swarthy Sean Ewing as Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks, contrasts immediately with a freckled, red-headed Tyler Haines, leader of the “white” Jets. Skylark Volpe makes Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante, her own: you’ll forget all about Rita Moreno’s Oscar performance in the 1961 movie version. It’s unfair not to comment on the rest - they’re all fabulous - but I couldn’t keep my eyes off Hannah Balagot as Anybody, the trouble-making, Jet-wannabe Tomboy whenever she was on stage.
La Fosse’s nonpareil restaging of Robbins choreography constantly reminds of the narrative power of dance, starting with the jaw dropping prologue that defines the tense, urban terrain of gritty streets, alleys and storefronts, rendered with a keen economy of tenement backdrop and drop-in scenery by set designer Kristen Robinson. The thrilling “Prologue” is the first of four more major ballet sequences: “The Dance at the Gym”, “Cool”, “The Rumble” and “Somewhere”. Not one is less accomplished than the other, but the fight choreography in “Rumble” “is about the most graphic and gracefully violent I’ve ever seen staged. (I should add the near rape of Anita in “The Taunting” is as equal in its grace as it is in its terror.)
Most extraordinary, however, is the “Somewhere” ballet. Boyd’s staging of the transition of Tony and Maria from crushing, tragic reality they share in Maria’s dark, cramped bedroom to a bright, open stage of ideal fantasy is breathtaking, in itself, but the dance that enfolds is an amazingly executed rendition of the complete sequence, including the nightmare’s pas des sixe, WITH Tony and Maria. That part of the dance is often cut. Even when included, Tony and Maria usually watch from the sideline with three other couples performing because in typical casting, Tony and Maria actors can’t dance that well. As noted, these kids do it all.
Although he has disparaged his lyrics, Stephen Sondheim’s contribution endures alongside Bernstein’s music and Robbins’ dance. In “America”, Anita and her friend Rosalie trade barbs about life in New York compared to their native Puerto Rico: “When I will go back to San Juan / When you will shut up and get gone! /Ev'ryone there will give big cheer! / Ev'ryone there will have moved here!” Or listen to “Gee, Officer Krupke” where the Jets blame their delinquency on families of drug addicts, drunks, and what we once called sexual deviants and conclude “Officer Krupuk… krup you!". Sondheim was 25.
Every musical number shines, as much as every dance sequence enthralls. My favorites: the sassy “America”, the winsome “I Feel Pretty” and the underappreciated duet of Anita and Maria, “I Have a Love”, with its dark, brooding melody. Darren Cohen’s musical direction is particularly effective in underscoring scene shifts: combined with Boyd’s direction of stage movement, the first act from “Something’s Coming” right through “Tonight” is seamless, creating a transportive effect unique to musical theatre.
Most captivating about BSC’s revival of “West Side Story” is its Maria. Ms. Morales has played a few roles in regional theatre: I learned she’s a junior in college. Seldom in any role on any stage does a performer demonstrate the skill and confidence in voice, dance and drama as she, especially someone as young. Her performance perfectly embodies Maria’s charming naiveté, unpretentious beauty and youthful passion. In the closing, tragic scene as Maria walks off the fatal playground, those are real tears streaming down her face. Addie Morales. Remember the name. We’ll hear more about her.
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