Friday, June 22, 2007

Barrington's "West Side Story" -- Composite Hit

Barrington Stage Company's resplendent, lovely, smashing presentation of "West Side Story" boasts the best in musical chemistry. This begins with Julianne Boyd who founded the company and directs the current production. It includes Joshua Bergasse's choreography which recalls that of Jerome Robbins in the original 1957 Broadway version as well as Bergasse's sometimes singular additions. Musical Director Darren R. Cohen and his players honor Leonard Bernstein's ever-distinctive music and memorable lyrics furnished by Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents wrote the book. Anne Kennedy outfits the actors beautifully and Luke Hegel-Cantarella's sets are most evocative.

Sounds pretty good, no? Since theatergoers know the tunes if not the 1961 film or another rendering, BSC has to be on its mark. Boyd's highly spirited production is a pleasure, a winner. That said, it's difficult to resist the temptation to compare and contrast with previous depictions.

Here's a back story I discovered. It was in 1949 that Robbins gathered together with Bernstein and writer Laurents. It was the choreographer's notion to modernize and transform "Romeo and Juliet" - with music. Thought of as "East Side Story," the script would focus upon a Jewish young man's love for a girl who was an Italian Catholic. The scene was to be the lower East Side, complete with with street gangs. But, the project was delayed because of scheduling issues and by the mid-1950s, the first plan was dated. It was Bernstein who turned to Sondheim, then twenty-seven, to provide lyrics. The musical grew, evolved.

"West Side Story," as many realize, finds Tony (Chris Peluso), once a Jets (gang) leader, falling for Maria (Julie Craig). As he does so, Tony distances himself, he hopes, since the Jets are about to take on the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Unfortunately, Tony kills Bernardo(Freddy Ramirez), who was also a Shark honcho. Maria's true friend Anita (the impressive Jacqueline Colmer) pleads with Maria to stay clear of Tony. You know what follows: Tony is killed by a Shark and Maria is heartbroken.

"Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart," duets featuring Peluso and Craig, could not be more precious. Each has a lovely voice and the blend is quite special.

Production numbers such as "The Dance at the Gym," "Tonight Quintet," "The Rumble," and "Somewhere" evidence the quality of movement (thanks to choreographer Bergasse) and precision dance.

The leads are talented and oftentimes stirring. Virtually all of the actors seem excited, pumped up, ready to: rumble, dance gymnastically, fall in love, perform forever.....

Bernstein's score for "West Side Story" only grows richer with age. It's American opera but also seminal musical theater.

The production is not perfect: Justin Bohon does a splendid job as Riff but the actor, trying for a New York accent, is inaccurate. The very beginning of the show seems tentative and perhaps the pacing is a bit off. But, these are minor quibbles.

Essentially, BSC's "West Side Story" flies high. It is reflective of Boyd, who continues to bring stellar performers to her company. She's done this many a time and she, as prime mover, deserves the primary accolade.

"West Side Story" continues through July 14 at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA
(413) 236-8888


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