Review: “West Side Story” at Barrington Stage Company
As I sat a few nights ago at Barrington Stage Company (BSC) watching its impassioned, vivacious revival of West Side Story, there were moments when I felt transported over the hills from downtown Pittsfield to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket. Yes, the dancing was that good. Extraordinary, actually.
When most of us think of West Side Story, we think of the bona fide geniuses who gave us the music and lyrics—Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The score is so resonant and resplendent that it is frequently performed on its own in concert halls. The songs are so timeless that every one of them seems embedded in the collective consciousness. The book by Arthur Laurents is so seamless that it is easy to under-appreciate its narrative arc. But the dance numbers cannot live in memory the same way as the music; you can’t hum them in the car or try to recreate them while singing in the shower.
BSC’s artistic director Julianne Boyd has given us an incredible gift—leapin’ lizards!—by having the original Jerome Robbins choreography reproduced for this production by Robert La Fosse, who worked under Robbins at the New York City Ballet and appeared on Broadway in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. Boyd had to deliver a step-kick-ass production because it’s only 11 summers since she last staged this musical, and theater buffs have long memories. But the calendar forced her hand because she wanted to help celebrate the centennial of Bernstein and Robbins’ births.
It was Robbins’ notorious chutzpah that gave him the confidence to use modem ballet to show gang warfare as gritty, graceful, and gloriosky!The show’s prologue is magnificently controlled chaos, and you realize in the first few minutes that the stage is populated not by singers who dance but by dancers who also sing beautifully. These up-and-coming actors — almost every one of their bios say “BSC Debut!” — bring genuine youthful enthusiasm to their roles as the American-born hoodlums whose gang is called the Jets and their arch-enemies the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Boyd made all the right choices in assembling her creative team. Costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti has used a Panavision palette: “The Dance at the Gym” is a kaleidoscope of color and the elegiac “Somewhere” is a haunting whisper of pastels. The set by Kristen Robinson evokes the rough-and-tumble 1950s west side of Manhattan and is suitably restrained because it is, after all, a backdropand shouldn’t upstage the main event. Lighting designer David Lander has done his job like a cinematographer, manipulating our emotions and our experience with his dextrous use of spots and gels.
Will Branner and Addie Morales, who play Tony and Maria, the modern day Romeo and Juliet, don’t treat the show as a vehicle for their ambition and come across as members of the ensemble who get the most songs and stage time. The moments that make your heart soar are when the full cast is on stage for the “The Dance at the Gym,” “Tonight Quintet” and “Somewhere.” The show’s three charm numbers where Sondheim’s wordsmithing is front and center—“America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”—are sheer delight. And the Krupke choreography is so finely wrought that every facial tick can be appreciated for its ingenuity and intentionality.
This main stage production with a 12-piece orchestra has an intimacy (even from the back row) that keeps you riveted even if you have seen West Side Storycountless times before. At Barrington Stage, familiarity breeds content.
“West Side Story” at Barrington Stage Company
Through September 1
30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA
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