Theater Review: “West Side Story” — Still Brilliant After All These Years
The Barrington Stage Company’s moving and fiercely energetic production brings West Side Story back to the stage with a bang.
West Side Story, conception by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Musical Direction by Darren R. Cohen. Choreographed by Robert La Fosse. Presented by Barrington Stage Company at the Boyd-Quinson MainStage, Pittsfield, MA, through September 1.
By Helen Epstein
Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins would have celebrated their 100th birthdays this year and Barrington Stage Company’s exhilarating production of West Side Story celebrates their genius. The musical updates Romeo and Juliet to the grungy West Side of Manhattan in the ’50s, a decade before the construction of Lincoln Center gentrified the neighborhood. The Montague and Capulet clans are the Jets and Sharks, gangs, who fight with bats, bricks, hoses, and switchblades — no rapiers. One side is Puerto Rican; the other, the sons of Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants who have barely been integrated into American society.
Director Julianne Boyd’s moving and fiercely energetic production brings the West Side of 1957 back to the stage with a bang. Not only do the show’s spectacular songs and dances hold up — watching them close-up on the BSC’s spacious yet intimate Main Stage may supply a more gripping experience than the original Broadway production.
A classic is timeless by definition, but West Side Story, with its many references to hoodlums, immigrants, the role of the police, the incompetence of social services and Puerto Rico (“Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America!”) seems especially timely.
A director mounting West Side Story has a tight, beautiful script to work with, but there are also a daunting set of challenges. The musical is one of the best in the canon and, arguably Bernstein’s most popular work. It is built out of durable aesthetic bones; its songs, dances, and music have been recorded and adapted by Bernstein and Robbins themselves, as well as pop singers, opera singers, jazz singers, and hundreds of musicians. Despite its stringent demands, the show has been produced all over the world for over 50 years by many high schools, colleges, and community theaters, as well as professional groups. Except for the white male “grown-ups” — Doc, Officer Krupke, and Lt. Schrank — all the characters are written as teenagers who must sing, dance, and act well. Half are characterized as Latino, and they need to look and sound credible, particularly at a time when audiences have become sensitized to issues of casting and cultural appropriation.
Bernstein is so identified with West Side Story that theatergoers sometimes forget that the show began as Jerome Robbins’ idea. It is as much a dance as a music show, and BSC is fortunate to have Robert La Fosse’s careful update of Robbins’ original choreography. La Fosse was a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre until he was invited by Robbins to be a principal at the New York City Ballet, where he worked closely with the choreographer. La Fosse originated the dance role of Tony in West Side Story Suite later starred in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. As a choreographer, he has some 75 works to his name. And he clearly knows how to get the most out of dancers. This group is as excellent as the principal actors.
Boyd has found a dazzling, persuasively innocent Maria in the person of Addie Morales, a slip of a young woman who looks like she’s 16 (she’s actually 21). She performs the role with the naturalness and passion of an adolescent, and possesses both a silvery but strong lyric soprano that Bernstein would have applauded and a persuasive Latino accent. She first performed the role a year ago at the Theatre Manana in Forth Worth, Texas and has made it hers.
The director has also stuck gold by casting recent University of Michigan graduate Will Branner as Tony. Branner has a lyric tenor than melds perfectly with Morales’ voice; he also boasts not only a rangy build but a fragile quality that sets him apart from the ferocious male world of the Sharks and the Jets.
Neither Branner’s Tony nor Morales’ Maria are the glamorous, larger-than-life performers I remember from earlier productions. This Tony and this Maria are presented as ordinary people inadvertently caught in the conflicts of others. This couple is portrayed more realistically here than in productions I have seen before. By casting them, Boyd has brought West Side Story out of the classical epoch of Broadway musicals into the post-Rent era. The two seize possession of your heart as soon as you first see them, consolidate their grip when they first catch a glimpse of one another, and don’t let it go till their very last notes.
The supporting members of the BSC cast are also excellent, though they don’t always fill the age and accent criteria. I particularly liked Tyler Hanes as Riff (the leader of the Jets and “womb to tomb; sperm to worm” best friend to Tony) whose provocative moves channel elements of Elvis, James Dean, and John Travolta. Skyler Volpe is an excellent and intelligent Anita, whose dancing and acting are both searing in their intensity. Her performance of the drugstore scene, where she ventures to deliver a message from Maria to Tony and is mauled and molested by the Jets is nuanced and indelible. Linedy Genao stands out in the often less visible role of Rosalia, who becomes the butt of Anita’s jokes when she confesses that she misses Puerto Rico in “I Want to be in America.”
It is a tribute to director Boyd that all the performers — who come from all over the United States — interact as though they were a repertory company.
Boyd has also chosen an superb design team. Kristen Robinson’s suggestive and efficient scenic design features a backdrop of dingy tenements and a ramshackle chain-link fence, overlaid with corrugated iron and scraps of wood. Rosa’s Bridal Shop, Maria’s bedroom and balcony, Doc’s drugstore, and the concrete underbelly of the West Side Highway are represented via a series of subtly lit tableaux. Sara Jean Tosetti’s vivid and perfectly detailed costumes delight the eye as does the impressively atmospheric lighting design by David Lande. Matthew Kraus provides a wonderfully realistic sound design. (I recognized the soundtrack under the old West Side highway).
My only reservation about this production — though I recognize the budgetary constraints when it comes to producing musicals these days — is the music. It should be illegal to reduce Bernstein’s score to an eleven-piece band with only one violin. The brass and reeds and percussion worked well enough in the violent episodes, but overall I found the arrangements annoying, obtrusive, and tinny, especially when they accompanied such soaring songs as “Maria” or “There’s a place for Us.” I missed a larger group of musicians — it’s not Threepenny Opera after all. But, if you’re hankering to hear Bernstein’s music as he wrote it, you can drive down the road to Tanglewood, where they are performing it all summer. I liked BSC’s West Side Story so much that I went back and saw it again..
Helen Epstein is the author of the memoirs Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History and The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, both available from Plunkett Lake Press. She has reviewed for The Arts Fuse since 2010.