by Gail M. Burns, June 2007

Long before I started officially reviewing BSC shows here on GailSez.com, I used to save up my pennies and make the hour and fifteen minute one-way drive down to Sheffield to see the Barrington Stage musicals. Not only were they professionally presented, but there was a certain intimacy and uniqueness to them. They were not mechanical reproductions of Broadway hits but fresh interpretations. Often they were bold choices of shows not often produced, like Mack and Mabel, On the Twentieth Century, and March of the Falsettos, or new musicals like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Game. And BSC was as creative with their ticket pricing as in their programming and staging. It was, and still is, easy to find reasonably priced tickets.

When West Side Story was announced as the opening show for the 2007 season, I was slightly disappointed in the choice simply because it was not seldom-seen gem or something new and different (BSC now has their Musical Theatre Lab for those productions). But, while many theatres are felled by the demanding music and dance involved in producing West Side Story, I knew that Barrington Stage would be up to the challenge. This production would have the same energy, intimacy, and freshness that those productions in the Consolati Performing Arts Center did. I was absolutely right.

BSC’s new Main Stage home on Union Street in Pittsfield is a wonderful theatre, combining a fairly large seating capacity (about 520) with the feeling of intimacy. I love the proscenium arch, which I assume is the 1912 original, with its sharp 90 degree angle corners (so many proscenia have rounded edges) that acts just like a picture frame around whatever scenery and action the company presents. Here the stage is quite stark and empty, as Luke Hegel-Cantarella has created several set pieces which slide on and off to depict the various dreary urban locales, both specific – Pop’s drugstore, Maria’s bedroom – and general – under the highway, on the street.

The scene change when the drop depicting the ramps and railings of the highway overpass was descending was a particularly breathtaking moment for me. Before the lights came up and flatten the drop out to its actual two-dimensions, it seemed as if a great chunk of the city was lowering itself ponderously down on to the Union Street stage. I also loved the colors of the streamers and lights that descended for the scene set at the dance in the gym.

Director Julianne Boyd has assembled a top notch cast of talented young singers and dancers. I would venture to guess that a good 40% of this show is dance – no singing, no talking, just bodies soaring and leaping and twisting in the air to Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful score, here ably rendered by a 12-piece pit orchestra under the baton of Darren R. Cohen.

When you stage West Side Story you must replicate the original choreography of Jerome Robbins. I would imagine that that is harder than inventing new routines of your own because dance is a three dimensional art and as far as I know there is not really satisfactory method of recording dance on paper (I am aware of Labanotation, and its imperfections). The choreography must reside primarily on film and in the oral and physical memories of the original performers, who must be getting on since the show is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Joshua Bergasse is the choreographer who staged Robbins’ dances with this cast in this space, and he and they have done a splendid job. Yes, there are a few moments in the first number when you wonder why all those “hoodlums” are using ballet arms, but then you get used to it and it does become their natural way of expressing themselves. The athletic vaulting of the Sharks over the fence to the rumble site is impressive and earned its own round of applause, followed by hearty laughter when the Jets sauntered in easily from the opposite side of the stage!

West Side Story is all about the violence of youth. It is a time of life when every feeling is new and powerful, and young men and women are just getting used to adult bodies and minds which can create and destroy in ways that their childish selves could barely imagine. They have no control over their own thoughts and feelings, and these particular young people live in a world where the adults are too busy working, or distracted by their own problems, or just plain exhausted to give them much guidance.

“You make this world lousy,” Pop tells them.

“That’s the way we found it,” Action, one of the more impulsive of the Jets replies.

Yes, these young singer/dancers are way too cute and clean and healthy to really be the impoverished street kids they are portraying. They are also all at least a decade older than the characters they are playing, which is both necessary for them to have developed the skills to perform this show properly, and to give the audience a feeling of safety too. We are not really sitting in the theatre with dangerous people. Its all make believe.

As all but my very youngest readers knows, West Side Story is an updated take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Here the star-crossed lovers are Tony and Maria, he a Polish-American and she just off the boat from Puerto Rico. The older immigrants are at war with the new wave, and Tony and Maria’s pairing is about as unpopular and politically incorrect as it can be. The action happens very fast, in the course of about 36 hours. Tony and Maria meet, fall in love, pledge their troth, consummate their relationship, and then he is killed just as they are on the verge of fleeing to that magic Somewhere where there isn’t any prejudice and they can live happily ever after.

Unlike Shakespeare’s pair, this Juliet survives and we do not meet either her parents or Tony’s in the course of the show. The one truly fresh and unique character that librettist Arthur Laurents created was Maria’s feisty older cousin, Anita, who has no parallel in Shakespeare and who is a greatly beloved character. Jacqueline Colmer plays her with great energy and was rewarded with the largest round of applause at the opening performance.

Julie Craig is a winning Maria. She looks perfect for the part – young and innocent and reasonably Hispanic – and her singing is so effortless and glorious that she makes the part her own. She is paired with Chris Peluso’s slightly less successful Tony. Peluso has to switch to falsetto on some of his high notes, which is unfortunate. It is fun to note that both of these actors first sang these roles in high school productions, where I bet they did not even attempt to recreate Jerome Robbins choreography.

It would be easy to single out every member of this company for some winning trait or nicely performed moment. I had my favorites and I am sure you will have yours.

I cannot think of better show to take children to, especially if they have never seen a big dance-intensive musical before. I would keep children under eight or nine at home because of the violence, (little ones will find this show frightening!) but older kids will be thrilled and captivated by this energetic and moving production.

The Barrington Stage Company production of West Side Story runs through July 14 at their Main Stage located at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 8 and up. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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