West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Music by Leonard Bernstein, based on a concept directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, based on William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Choreographed by Robert La Fosse. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Anita (Skyler Volpe) [c] and the girls sing "America"; photo: Daniel Rader
"When love comes so strong there is no right or wrong."
Will Branner; photo: Daniel Rader
Sometimes love is better the second time around, though for Tony and Maria, main characters who do not connect with reality very well, there is no second chance. In fact, there is barely a first shot at the grand romance. They have no last names in this show, and their parents exist only in rumor and off-stage calls. Their friends have only rough variations on identity and even the adults are not fully identified, with only the police having a last name identity. Tony and Maria meet at a dance in a high school gym, their instant identification with one another indicated through a shift in the rhythm of the dance music - the frantic Mambo becomes a seductive Cha-Cha-Cha keeping the romance squarely on her side: she is a Puerto Rican immigrant while he is a third generation Polish-American. It seems only fair that the young woman should rule the day musically and romantically. Their love burns with an intensity for just over a single day, about twenty-six hours. At least Romeo and Juliet had a few more hours in which to dream and hope for a better future where their love would repair rivalries.
Barrington Stage Company is giving director Julianne Boyd another shot at this show, this time with a fifteen piece orchestra and a production that would give any Broadway producer a sense of great pride. Kristen Robinson's New York City streetscape is glorious, abetted by David Lander's wonderful lighting, both internal and external atmosphere and perfectly registered special lights for the characters themselves. Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes call to mind the mid-1950s urban youth to perfection as do the wigs created by Dave Bova. The cast is filled with bright, handsome, exotic young people and Robert La Fosse has recreated Jerome Robbins classic choreography to perfection. All of this frames a show in which violence and bad behavior are key to the story and now and then the combination of so much beauty and the acting-out of so much hatred becomes almost too much to bear. A musical should transport us, which this show always has done, to something better than the life around us. As we watch our political leaders drag us down the byways of bigotry and loathsome behavior in 2018 it is just a bit hard to watch a show that highlighted that sort of activity in years past, many years past, sixty-one years past.
I liked Barrington's previous go-round with this show very much; I like this one as well, very much indeed. I only ask if we need to be reminded in our leisure hours of those things we hear too much about in our daily life. Maybe we do, and maybe it's good to watch those things danced, and sung and set in a time not our own. Maybe it's good when theater shows us how long it has taken to advance so very little. Maybe it helps us assume some guilt, with a nice tune underneath, and to consider alternatives. We are urged, really, to drop the bigotry and hatred, and to find a way, a place "somewhere, somehow, someday." This production is a triumph insofar as it allows us to respond with a tear or two at the end, those tears leading to reflection on our present state and our future if we don't take charge of our destiny.
Will Branner and Addie Morales; photo: Daniel Rader
And, of course, we can dance.
We cannot dance as well, though, as Tyler Hanes, who plays Riff, the leader of that street gang, the Jets. Nor can we dance as well as Sean Ewing who plays his Puerto Rican counterpart, Bernardo of the Sharks. The two men are surrounded by so much "gang" talent in the other roles that the temptation after the show to dance your way to the parking lot is inescapable. These men, in particular, inspire in spite of their gang mentality hatred the human urge to express feelings through body language. The lengthy "Prologue" mostly danced in Robbins' concept, is so very exciting in this production that at the end of it we experience the exhaustion that the cast cannot express. They have a long way to go before that feeling can be displayed on the stage. I had to marvel at the energy expended to complete this two hour and twenty minute show.
It's heroic youngsters who stress love over violence and tolerance instead of bigotry are Tony and Maria, played here by Will Branner and Addie Morales. Branner's Tony is strong, handsome, graceful and wise. He is also more deliberatly vengeful than I remember any Tony being in the past. I must say I liked that. Mixed loyalties are Tony's failing and when love loses it also wins in this show. His singing voice, for me, was too edgey and sharp and unpleasant, particularly in his love duets with Morales whose sweet sound did not blend well with his ringing tones making their songs together less effective for me.
Morales is a beautiful woman who expresses joy better than most of the women I've seen in this role. When she sings about her love, as she does in five major numbers, the absolute truth in her voice is mirrored in her body and her face. This is a Maria anyone would love. In her dream ballet pas de deux with Branner's Tony she is all long-lines and grace without ever becoming balletic; her natural element seems to be in combinations with a partner who allows her to achieve weightlessness.
As her more worldly, erotic and vivid counterpart, Anita, Skyler Volpe tears up any and all rugs as she dances with exotic wildness and remarkable versatility. Volpe's double duet with Morales in the second act has all the fire of the orignal production in 1957 and when she is swayed by her Maria's intensity her voice and her body move into a higher gear of emotional expression that is utterly beautiful.
Addue Moirales, Will Brenner; photo: Daniel Rader
The musical highpoints, in spite of the remarkable dancing, are achieved in two songs, "Tonight" in the first act and the dream ballet journey "Somewhere" in the second act. Romeo and Juliet on their balcony cannot really compare to Tony and Maria on the fire escape in the first number. Darren R. Cohen, the musical director, leads his pit band through the gorgeous expression of sensual urges as they accompany the two leading players. For that dream journey to a somewhere that doesn't yet exist (not then and not now) the lyrical vocal solo is taken by an enchanting-voiced Magdalena Rodriguez.
Many other roles in this large company of players have their moments: Gordon Stanley's Doc is excellent providing a voice of sanity in an otherwise emotionally compromised New York City of the 1950s. Douglas Rees's Captain Shrank is a harsh, bigoted role-model for the Jets and is well portrayed, as is his comic relief Glad Hand, leader of the kids dance at the gym. Christopher Tucci is a fine Officer Krupke, delivering nicely in each of his scenes.
Riff's girlfriend, Velma, is beautifully portrayed by Abby Hunt. Hannah Balagot delivers Anybodys with a new dignity not usually seen in this role. Juan Caballer's Action is vitally alive in every stage moment he has and Alex Swift's Chino possessed a remarkable humanity.
Julianne Boyd has directed this show as if it might be her last offering to the public. There is so much embedded into the performances that only a director with a vision could have brought to the work. Throughout there are small touches, gestures and glances from one cast member to another that clearly mark this work as seminal and perfect. No one on this stage is ever NOT on stage and in character and interacting if only listening. It is akin to a painting of a community by an artist of another century whose sense of details enlivens an otherwise static image. If she retired tomorrow she would be going out at the top of her game with this production of "West Side Story."
In this centenary year for both Bernstein and Robbins this production is an anniversary gift to cherish.
Bernardo (Sean Ewing) [c] and the boys; photo: Daniel Rader
West Side Story plays on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company's Union Street Theatre, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through September 1. For information and tickets go to barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413-236-8888.