by Jenny Hansell
There was a moment at the beginning of the Barrington Stage Company production of West Side Story where Riff, the leader of the Jets gang, takes two short steps and then sort of lifts off – his bent leg rising to the side, his shoulders in a shrug. It looked effortless, and my heart lept as I watched it – I knew immediately that this show was going to be danced at the highest level.
The two gangs establish their identities in that first number: the Jets own the turf, and they slide, smoothly, their jumps soft and controlled. The Sharks, the interlopers, are more explosive yet wary, going from low strides to sudden high side kicks, then back to a crouch, looking over their shoulders. The menace, the threat of violence on either side that could boil and explode at any moment – somehow it felt very real at every moment.
The original Jerome Robbins choreography was meticulously recreated for this production by Robert La Fosse and Nicholas Barr, both of whom danced with Robbins extensively. The Mambo scene at the gym was thrilling, America was spectacular, and even the dream ballet during There’s A Place for Us, which has seemed absurd in other productions I’ve sene and is often cut, was lovely and heart-wrenching.
The cast was terrific – young, appealing, and enormously talented. Addie Morales was a sweet and innocent Maria, with a gorgeous clear soprano voice. Her character has to progress from the naive girl in all white, to the grieving woman in red at the end, and Morales nailed it, imbuing the often-mawkish scene at the end when Maria grabs the gun and points it at the others with full-throated rage. The 16-year-old Broadway fanatic in the seat next to me nearly jumped out of her seat when she saw that Riff was played by Tyler Hanes, who has a half-dozen Broadway credits, most notably (to her anway), in Hairspray, and just about expired with joy when she saw that the actor playing the smart-mouth Jet, A-Rab, Kyle Coffman, had been in the original Broadway cast of Newsies. They (and the rest of the Sharks and Jets) were terrific dancers, embodying the pent-up fury and seething machismo that animates their feud and powers numbers like “Cool” and “The Rumble”.
As Tony, Will Branner was intense, almost snarling in “Something’s Coming.” His voice is so huge he was sometimes overmiked. The true standout was Skyler Volpe as Anita. Equally strong as an actor, singer and dancer, she was perfection in Tonight, and was practically larger-than-life in America.
The production design was top-shelf as well, particularly the set, by Kristen Robinson. Chain link fences, a balcony, a broken-down playground, all moved smoothly and quickly in and out, and the twinkling windows on the darkened set during “Tonight” were breathtaking.
The dialogue of West Side Story hasn’t aged well–the creaky “daddy-o’s” and “ooblie-oohs” can take you right out of the mood. I was prepared to coast from one dance number to the next and space out as needed during the spoken scenes. But this cast and this production kept me riveted.
I have a proposal for Ms. Boyd: collaborate with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to bring this production to Tanglewood with the full BSO. It would solve the only problem with the Barrington Stage Company production: the orchestra wasn’t always at the level it should have been to match the dancing, and the sound from under the stage wasn’t great. And it would solve my quibble with the Tanglewood live orchestra production two weeks ago: the sound from the film was tinny and out of balance with the glorious orchestra. But a full symphony with this terrific cast – now that would be a show for the ages.
West Side Story, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Music Direction by Darren R. Cohen, Original Choreography reproduced by Robert La Fosse, Directed by Julianne Boyd. Cast: Addie Morales (Maria); Will Branner (Tony); Skyler Volpe (Anita); Sean Ewing (Bernardo); Tyler Hanes (Riff); Alex Swift (Chino); Juan Caballer (Action); Douglas Rees (Schrank/Gladhand); Gordon Stanley (Doc); Christopher Tucci (Krupke); Julio Catano (Pepe); Jerusha Cavazos (Consuela); Linedy Genao (Rosalia) Hannah Balagot (Anybodys); Michael Pesko (Diesel); Dylan Gabriel Hoffinger (Baby John); Kyle Coffman (A-Rab); Raynor Rubel (Snowboy/Big Deal); Abbey Hunt (Velma); Kelly Loughran (Graziella); Jennifer Gruener (Pauline); Tamrin Goldberg (Francisca); Magdalena Rodriguez (Teresita); Sarah Crane (Minnie/Margarita); Danny Bevins (Indio); Antony Sanchez (Nibbles); Brandon Keith Rogers (swing) Scenic Designer: Kristen Robinson, Costume Designer: Sara Jean Tosetti, Wig Designer: Dave Bova, Lighting Designer: David Lander, Sound Designer: Matthew Kraus. Runs August 3 – September 1 at Barrington Stage Company at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. Tickets available at https://barringtonstageco.org/Season-Shows/west-side-story/ or (413)236-8888. Runing time 2 ½ hours including one intermission.