When it comes to any of the old warhorse musicals, probably the greatest compliment you could pay would be to exult, “If you’ve never seen it before, this is the production for you!” Julianne Boyd’s Barrington Stage Company West Side Story doesn’t quite rise to that highest standard of exultation. But in terms of the all-important integrating of song, dance, and acting, then yes: Someone who has only encountered librettist Arthur Laurents’ retooling of Romeo and Juliet as ‘50s-era gang warfare through the movie or a cast album, will gain a strong sense of the impact it can have in live performance. And a pleasant trip to the Berkshires in the bargain.
Director Boyd is using the official licensed text, which means no interpolation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Spanish translations of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics as commissioned for the 2009 Broadway version. Changes wrought for the classic 1961 movie (putting “Cool” in act two after the rumble, and bringing “Gee, Officer Krupke” into act one, for instance) are also ignored. Pegging its efforts to the centenary celebrations of both composer Leonard Bernstein and director Jerome Robbins, Barrington has clearly set out to stay as faithful as possible to the original vision, right down to bringing in Robert La Fosse, a longtime principal for Robbins’ New York City Ballet and seasoned West Side Story veteran, to reproduce the groundbreaking choreography.
Fidelity to a bygone source needn’t imply the musty air of a museum piece. Boyd and La Fosse have wisely made street cred a priority in casting their homegrown Jets and Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks. Age-wise they’re no more credible than the Rydell High students of the movie Grease, but that aside, their attitudes are young and their behavior is steel-tough. There is real acting going on among the ensemble, especially in the big act one set pieces (the prologue; the dance at the gym; “Cool”; the rumble) which convey much of the visceral excitement that must have jolted the Winter Garden crowds in 1957. (That Barrington is bucking latter-day austerity by employing a cast of 27 contributes to the sense of honoring old-school production values.)
The principals are equally aware of their responsibility to make the drama immediate and real. Will Branner’s Tony is an ideal wide-eyed dreamer, a little thick but with sincerity and heart. He also knows how to act a song, turning “Maria” into an energized anthem of discovery he’s proud to share with the world. Branner is well matched with tiny, enchanting Addie Morales, who more than most Marias captures the arc of experience Shakespeare’s Juliet follows, that is, from flighty innocence to mature grief. Skyler Volpe’s Anita could afford to ramp up the gravity a bit, but she’s superb in her anguished “I Have a Love” duet with Morales, and both Tyler Hanes (Riff) and Sean Ewing (Bernardo) make strong impressions.
The vocals are uniformly strong. Yet even setting aside any expectation of the score’s familiar lushness when performed by only 11 musicians (two dozen or more are the standard), Bernstein isn’t well served here. Percussion and drums had a good night at a recent visit, but the brass, woodwinds, and sound personnel did not, clinkers heard as often as lyrics were drowned out. One expects the balance to improve over time, and Boyd may be able to smooth out some of the rough edges in act two, in which romantic and melodramatic moments tend to be rushed, and the climactic violation of Anita by the crazed Jets suffers from a by-the-numbers quality.
At some point, directors and choreographers attempting familiar properties have to decide how much risk they’re prepared to assume in challenging tried-and-true choices. Going out on a limb can dismay audiences, but can also realize new thrills. (In one West Side Story in my experience, the Jets and Sharks actually tried mambo’ing with each other during the gymnasium social, and the breakdown of that attempt at comity brought the whole production to life.) Barrington is far from alone in going the safe, conservative route, which is fine provided that a company is as scrupulous in attending to the material’s emotional core as this one is. It may not send you out cheering, but you’ll leave with a better understanding of what the cheering for West Side Story is all about.
West Side Story opened August 8, 2018, at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage (Pittsfield, MA) and runs through September 1. Tickets and information: barringtonstageco.org