By James V. Ruocco
With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, "West Side Story" arrives on the doorstep of Barrington Stage Company fifty-one years after its Broadway debut. But there is nothing tiresome or dated about this story of doomed love set against the background of gangland warfare on the streets of New York's upper west side, circa, 1957.
If anything, this production not only reaffirms the musical's greatness, but like "Company," the year before at Barrington Stage, it creates its own magic, its own physical poetry, its own sense of style and its own emotional power.
This "West Side Story" has it all.
It's a show rich in theatrical brilliance as well as something deeply human and deeply moving. It contains extraordinary performances from its equally brilliant cast. The songs strike sparks in all the right places. And the dancing is simply magnificent.
In short, what's not to like?
Julianne Boyd, the director of "West Side Story," knows she has a Broadway classic in her hands and therefore, remains faithful to the original 1957 production. That said, she crafts an exuberant, heartfelt, dutiful production of high energy, pulse, sentiment and dimension. Her instinctive connection to the piece, the characters, the story, the music and its clash of cultures is real and achingly heartfelt. Nothing is sugar-coated. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is downplayed, changed or reinvented. The prejudice of the times, its ugliness, its verbal abuse, its hypocrisy and its obvious sneer at minorities is front and center. The "Romeo and Juliet" romance between Tony and Maria, the two lovers of different social, economic and racial backgrounds is also rife with reason, energy, drama and timelessness.
To many, the story of "West Side Story" is pretty much indestructible. It's big, yes. It's amazing, yes. It's loved, yes. The songs, the dances and the characters are legendary. Regardless, Boyd is not one to rest on her laurels. Nor is she one to copycat the original stage production or the 1961 Oscar-winning movie. There's a lot going on here, but she is never once daunted, intimidated or over anxious. It's her show and she works effortlessly to pull it all together, and pull it all together, she does.
Key narrative moments have real purpose, meaning and importance. The action is fast, fluid and well-defined. The songs and dances fit seamlessly into the framework of the story. And every actor on the Barrington stage (lead, supporting or ensemble member) is firmly rooted in the time period of the actual story, circa 1957. Boyd wouldn't have it any other way.
Here, as in last year's "Company," Boyd is a force to be reckoned with. Staging the two-act musical, she embellishes the territorial, troublesome underbelly of the composer's and author's vision, its streetwise language and gangland bravado, its well-plotted scene structure, its flip sarcasm, its cowardice, its boldness and its surprise twists of fate. She also knows how to build and develop a given scene, how to thrust each principal character or supporting character into the spotlight, how to introduce an individual song or production number without calculation and how to embellish the vision set forth by the show's creators.
Boyd is such a clever, ingenious auteur, this "West Side Story" springs to life in every color of the spectrum imaginable. Even if you've seen the movie or some incarnation of the much-loved stage musical before, with Boyd pulling the strings, you forget all of that. Just as "Company" cast its spell, so does "West Side Story." At Barrington Stage, it's as if you're seeing this classic Bernstein/Sondheim musical for the very first time.
Then, now, tomorrow and the day after that, the strength and heartbeat of any production of "West Side Story" lies in Jerome Robbins' ground-breaking, original choreography, a hypnotic mix of urban cool and street-wise, dark and moody, breezy and erotic and factual and real. Here, choreographer Robert La Fosse takes hold of the master's shifting, pulse-quickening dance moves, maneuvers and dance patterns and plunges head-first into the fiery, passionate, testosterone-charged territory made famous by Robbins, bringing depth, heat and urgency to the opening "Prologue," the tangy "Dance at the Gym," the poignant, hopeful "Somewhere" ballet, the pungent "America" and the icy-hot "Cool."
But La Fosse is no imitator. He's his own person. He connects all the right dots and uses all the right colors. Working from Robbins' blueprint, he crafts brilliant, dance moves that not only soar, entice and excite, but leave you completely awe stuck, begging for more, wanting more and crying for more over and over. This is "West Side Story" like you've never seen before. La Fosse is a master craftsman who produces some eclectic moments of macho swagger and turbulence, balletic elegance, touching playfulness, sexy spontaneity and street-wise edge and brutality. But the combinations, the set ups, the positions, the framing, the cross-cuts, the beats, the pauses and the rhythms, are so precise, natural and revelatory, memories of every other "West Side Story" fade completely to black immediately.
This, of course, is bolstered by the rhythmic, snappy brilliance of Bernstein's flavorful musical score and the eloquent, expressive, poetic beauty of Sondheim's lyrics. Then and now, "West Side Story" comes gift wrapped with a visionary line-up of showstoppers that include "Tonight," "Maria," "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Something's Coming," "Cool," "Somewhere," "One Hand, One Heart" and "Gee, Officer, Krupke."
At Barrington Stage, Darren R. Cohen breathes new life into the popular "West Side Story" score in ways that would make its creators proud. Every showstopper, every song and every production number is rife with imagination, purpose and spirit. The vocally difficult "Quintet" is furiously delivered by the entire cast who never once step out of line, miss a beat or forget a lyric. Elsewhere, songs like "Maria," "Tonight," "Cool" and "America" are freshly delivered and performed with genuine ardor, sensitivity, compassion, gusto and yearning.
That said, this "West Side Story" never feels stuck in a musical time warp of nostalgia. Cohen completely understands the song material and the tragic, sincere and emotional dimensions built into the music and lyrics by Bernstein and Sondheim. Yet despite its familiarity and its very hummable lyrics, it all sounds very, very new. That is quite a feat to pull off, but Cohen does it quite splendidly.
Casting the right actor in the right part is crucial to the success of any production of "West Side Story" and Boyd, La Fosse and Cohen have done themselves proud. At Barrington Stage, everyone is so very right for their respective roles from lead and supporting players to members of the "West Side Story" ensemble. This cast far surpasses that of the 2009 Broadway revival which starred Matt Cavenaugh, Karen Olivo, Josefina Scagloine, Cody Green and George Akram and any subsequent National Tour in the last decade or two.
They are extraordinary. The skill, the sincerity, the mindset and the magic they each bring to this adrenaline-filled story fascinates, entertains, excites and enthralls. There's also a breathless rush and exhilaration to everything they say and do in a broken, confused and prejudiced world that never stops them longing for a better life far beyond their blue collar/immigrant, gang-ridden neighborhoods of the late 1950's.
The character of Tony, as written by Laurents, is not an easy role to pull off. Most often, the part is played with one-note charm from song to song or scene to scene with almost nothing to propel you into his story, his romance or subsequent death at the end of the musical. To pull it off, you need an actor who is not only charming, likeable and sincere from the moment we first meet him, but someone who can act, sing, dance and make even the most stilted or silliest of dialogue sound completely instinctive and believable.
Luckily, for us, "West Side Story" director Julianne Boyd saw fit to cast the very personable and charismatic Will Branner as the troubled, lovesick, kind-hearted romantic. The actor not only possesses the boyish, laid-back charm, spirit and innocence that embodies Tony, but gives him equal dimension, color, personality, shading and presence.
Vocally, Branner dazzles. He oozes sweetness. He oozes charm. He is in perfect pitch, utilizing his smooth, irresistible sound to such full effect, he could probably reduce Sondheim to tears if ever the composer was in the audience (he was there for "Company," so who knows?). Branner also gets the lyrics. He gets the music. You never doubt him for a moment. With "Something's Coming," he sings with excited certainty and curiosity. With "Maria," his astonishing vocal purity and power magically captures the wonderment of first love and the endless possibilities that will follow. And his "Tonight" duet with his very attractive co-star (Addie Morales) is hauntingly beautiful.
One of genuine pleasures of Boyd's "West Side Story" is the casting of Addie Morales as Maria. This too is not an easy role to play, but the sweet, enigmatic Morales takes hold of it and shapes and molds it into one of the most magical, enchanting and alarmingly real performances the musical has to offer. She is charming. She is innocent. She is radiant. She is compassionate. She is lovely. She is also an actress of intelligence, depth, drive and perseverance. And like Branner, she completely gets and understands the character she is playing and her role in the advancement of the actual story. Maria's desolate grief at the end of Act II is so realistically conveyed and projected, it's impossible to take your eyes off the actress for a second. She really makes you feel her pain, her anguish and her loss. Simply amazing.
When asked to perform Maria's many "West Side Story" vocals, Morales does so, every so agreeably, in ways that are charming, alluring, intoxicating and playful. Her thrilling, delightful rendition of "I Feel Pretty," is rife with charm, whimsy, color and imagination. "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart," the hauntingly beautiful romantic ballads she shares with Branner, are just as pungent and beguiling as the day they were first written. "A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love," the fiery, heated duet about first /lost love she sings and shares with the citrusy Skyler Volpe (Anita) floats the voice, the concern and urgency of the song exactly as intended by Bernstein and Sondheim.
Anita, the fiery, sultry girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo, is played with passionate vitality, allure and temperament by the equally alluring and passionate Skyler Volpe who recently starred as Mimi in the 20th Anniversary National Tour of Jonathan Larson's feverish musical "Rent," where she dazzled and rocked audiences night after night with her thrilling performance.
Like "Rent's" Mimi, the part of Anita is tailor-made for Volpe. She dazzles, flirts, charms and glides herself through this colorful role (she's also an incredible dancer) with just the right emotion, pulse, depth and personality to pull it off. We get her. She gets us. We love her. She loves us. Her performance is so lusty and so powerful, we are never once reminded of Chita Rivera who originated the role of Anita in the 1957 Broadway production or Rita Moreno who assumed the role in the 1961 Oscar-winning movie musical.
Volpe's seamless, flavorsome rendition of "America," performed, in part, with the fine-voiced Shark Girls, brilliantly captures the sardonic wit and contempt of life in both the USA and Puerto Rico with icy imagination. Much later, when the Jets taunt her with twisted racial slurs and a simulated rape that director Boyd builds and builds to a frightening crescendo, Volpe's anger is real, raw and warranted. It's an amazing piece of drama that gives additional edge to the story and its eventual dramatic conclusion.
Sean Ewing, as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, the brother of Maria and the boyfriend of Anita is right in sync with Laurents' bold, intense interpretation of the iconic street gang character who dies at the end of Act I. Vocally, he stands tall in the brilliantly staged and sung "Quintet," which is performed by the entire cast. But, sadly, he does not perform in "America" like George Chakiris did in the movie version. Here, the popular musical number adheres to the original staging and concept (women only) of the original 1957 Broadway musical. In short, no Bernardo. No male Sharks.
For the part of Riff, Boyd has cast the versatile Tyler Hanes to play the leader of the Jets gang. Perfect casting. Most definitely. The actor makes all the right moves, from Riff's take-charge persona and urban vulnerability to the character's heated restlessness, short-changed hostility with the Sharks and the kind-hearted buddy-buddy camaraderie he shares with the Jets gang. The actor also brings a real sense of tireless, palpable humanity to the showstopping "Jet Song," performed with jazzy snap by members of the Jets gang and danced to ovation worthy perfection under Robert La Fosse's choreographic tutelage.
Often, in "West Side Story," the parts of Doc (Gordon Stanley), Glad Hand/Lt. Schrank (Douglas Rees) and Officer Krupke (Christopher Tucci) get lost in the shuffle or are played by actors who simply are unable to get past the one-note mechanics of their characters or the writing. Not so, at Barrington Stage. Here, under Julianne Boyd's watchful eye, this trio of actors not only offer bold, full-bodied performances, but fit seamlessly into the framework of the story and its dramatic evolution.
"West Side Story" is an exciting fusion of music, romance, dance and story. It is a great American musical, reinforced by Julianne Boyd's gutsy, determined direction, the jazzy brilliance of Robert La Fosse's choreography and the vocal pulse and precision of the popular Bernstein/Sondheim score. It is an emotionally-ridden work, populated by an exceptional team of actors, singers and dancers, all of whom work tirelessly to bring the charm, menace, melody, angst and social concern that is "West Side Story" to life. It is also the only production where Chino's murder of Tony by gunshot at the end of Act II leaves the audience completely shaken. Then again, Boyd as director, wouldn't have it any other way.
"West Side Story" photos by Daniel Rader
"West Side Story" is being showcased at Barrington Stage (Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, MA), now through September 1.
For tickets or more information, call (413) 236-8888.